Jill Tucker, S.F. Chronicle Staff Writer | http://bit.ly/uAlXNH
Dylan Entelis / The Chronicle - School Smarts Parent Academy grads get diplomas at South San Francisco's Sunshine Gardens Elementary.
Thursday, December 29, 2011 :: When Sunshine Gardens Principal Ifeoma Obodozie recently asked for a parent volunteer to coordinate the South San Francisco elementary school's annual spaghetti feed, 10 people signed up.
At her weekly "coffee with the principal" gatherings, 30 moms and dads are regularly crowding around with cups, asking questions and offering suggestions.
In the predominantly Hispanic school, that kind of parent involvement didn't exist a couple of months ago.
But that was before a group of about 30 parents started spending nearly two hours every Thursday night at a PTA School Smarts Parent Academy.
The pilot program, in its second year, focuses on teaching parents how to be involved in their children's schooling, something consistently found to be one of the most important factors in a child's academic success regardless of family income or background.
Obodozie didn't need to see the PTA's independent analysis showing that the program works.
Parents who were timid in the past - because they couldn't speak English or because they never completed high school - now stop her to ask questions and raise concerns. They communicate with teachers and are more attentive to their child's schoolwork.
"I've seen a difference, a huge difference," the principal said. "When parents are involved, they really stay on top of their child's education."
Parent Maria Carlisle, who has two children at Sunshine Gardens Elementary, took the classes with her husband, Edwin Campos.
Carlisle said many parents came away from the program with new skills as well as a simple understanding: "It doesn't matter what language you speak as long as you're an involved parent," she said.
The parent training program was funded by a Hewlett Foundation grant, with $270,000 this year to expand the program to more schools.
Last year, 345 parents participated at 14 schools in four school districts, including Alameda and South San Francisco as well as two in Southern California.
Just over half of the parents were Spanish speakers, and nearly a third never completed high school.
This year, the program is in 23 schools in the same four districts.
Parents learn how the public education system works, who the superintendent is, and how to reach the school board. They also work on communication and leadership skills, as well as more concrete things like how to set up a study station at home.
"This has everything you need to engage parents," said Carol Kocivar, president of the California PTA. "It's really exciting to see something like this where you help parents learn how to help their children."
Just before the winter break, Sunshine Gardens held a graduation ceremony for the parents who completed the program. Family members took pictures of the graduates as "Pomp and Circumstance" played and their children cheered.
"It took a lot for you to step forward and say, 'Teach me how to be involved in my child's education,' " Obodozie said.
At the graduation ceremony, Gabriela Villalpando, 12, sat in the front row to watch her parents, Gabriela and Victor Villalpando, get their first-ever diplomas.
The couple never got past middle school themselves, but they had different plans for their children and so signed up for the seven-week PTA parent school.
"They wanted to help us go to college," said Gabriela, a seventh-grader. "They wanted to be good parents to us."