On a Wednesday night in a classroom at Laurel Elementary School, 10 parents sat hunched over small desks where their first-graders usually sit. Several looked tired, their eyes red and glassy after a day of work.
Despite any fatigue, the parents seemed to pay close attention to everything that Angela Tart, a first-grade teacher at Laurel Elementary, said. Two or three, including a father with white house paint on his hands, took notes.
"Your job, when you're in the car driving, you can just ask them those kind of questions, too," Tart said, explaining to parents that they should quiz their kids on whatever they are learning at school. "So when they come here and they come to the teacher's door, they'll be ready."
The parents were attending Tart's workshop, part of the Laurel organization Side by Side's Great Start program, in order to learn how to help their kids learn.
"They hold it up to you and it's a five, and you can just say, 'Give me two numbers that equal five,'" Tart said, instructing parents in how to use flashcards. Every two to three sentences Mirna Castillo, a parent coordinator for Prince George's County schools, translated what Tartt said into Spanish for the majority of parents in the workshop who do not speak English.
"Por ejemplo, esta tarjeta tenia cinco, y usted lo dice, 'Dame los numeros que suman a cinco,'" she said.
"The percentage of Hispanic school families is steadily rising, and that's true in Laurel and all over the Washington, D.C. area," said Joe Murchison, Side by Side's executive director, who is a former editor of the Laurel Leader. "So from the very beginning we knew that that was an important population to reach."
The percentage of Laurel residents who speak Spanish at home doubled from 2000 to 2013, according to the American Community Survey, and approximately 28 percent of Prince George's County students in kindergarten through eighth grade reported Spanish as their primary language, according to spokeswoman Sherrie Johnson.
"We have interpreters at all of our workshops and we translate all of our fliers into Spanish," Murchison said. "You can't ignore a quarter of your families."
Side by Side is a faith-based organization that was founded in 2007 to improve Prince George's County public schools in Laurel. In 2009, the organization launched its Family Academy program, which served as a precursor to its Great Start workshops, launched in 2012 for kindergarten, first-grade and second-grade parents.
"When I was editor at the Leader, we did a lot of stories on the schools against a backdrop of people feeling like the schools were not good," Murchison said, "and people were moving out of the community to other counties."
Two out of the seven elementary schools in Laurel scored proficiently on 2014 state reading tests. On new state English tests taken in the spring, more than 79 percent of students at Laurel High failed to meet expectations, compared to 71 percent of Prince George's County students and 60 percent of Maryland students.
"When I left journalism, I really wanted to do something to help local schools. I got together with a number of other people who came from churches in Laurel. We settled on working with parents as the best way to help schools," Murchison said. "Because if parents work with students at home — essentially, good schools are about students who have educational opportunities at home before they go to school."
Parental involvement is widely accepted by education experts as an essential ingredient for student success. The Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, a nonprofit education research organization, found that, regardless of family income or background, students with involved parents are more likely to earn higher grades, attend school regularly and graduate and obtain postsecondary education.
But for the parents in Tart's classroom, and for many other parents in Laurel, getting involved in their children's educations is difficult because of language and cultural barriers that prevent them from understanding what their children are learning in school and how they can support that learning.
According to the state's education department, 40 percent of Laurel Elementary students qualify as "limited English proficient," meaning they "have a primary or home language other than English." Twenty-eight percent of Laurel residents are foreign-born, according to the 2013 American Community survey, and may not have grown up with the type of parental involvement expected in the American school system.
"I never remember one day when my parents sat down to do homework with me," said Folake Adeyemi, who immigrated to Laurel from Nigeria in 2007. "Where I come from, culturally we were not involved academically in our kids' lives."
When the oldest of her three sons began kindergarten at Montpelier Elementary, he was not doing well in school. Adeyemi started attending Great Start workshops to learn how to help his academic growth.
"They have so many helpful suggestions about how to help your child grow up, how to study reading and math," she said. "I was learning that I'm the first teacher for them and I have to be the one to help them with whatever they need to do."
Since its founding eight years ago, Side by Side's operating budget has grown from $18,000 to $174,000. It now holds eight Great Start workshops, or family nights, throughout the school year at five of the seven Prince George's County elementary schools in Laurel: Deerfield Run, Bond Mill, Laurel, Scotchtown Hills and James Harrison elementary. Funding comes from grants, donations and fundraising events.
"The workshops center on reading, math, behavior and are led by teachers at the schools," said Murchison. "So parents learn what their children are expected to learn that year and are given games and activities and websites that they can use at home to support that learning."
Great Start provides dinner and children's activities for workshop participants and their families so that parents do not have to worry about childcare or food for the evening. Even with these obstacles removed, Murchison finds it difficult to get parents to participate in the program and participate consistently; participating in only one session does not make a significant difference, he said.
"We live in a very busy culture and our families are predominantly lower-income," Murchison said. "They're busy, they're working."
At Laurel Elementary where Tart taught her workshop, 84 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced-price school meals because their family incomes are below federal poverty levels.
Even with these challenges, 1,324 parents and students participated in Great Start in the 2014- 15 school year, a significant increase over the 419 who participated in the program's inaugural 2012-13 school year.
"We have to work really hard to get them to the programs," Murchison said. "We advertise any way we can think of, with fliers, with email, with phone calls, with stickers on the children when they go home."
Adeyemi said that going to the workshops was hard at times because she was tired from a long day working as a registered nurse. She attended anyway because of how much she learned from the teachers and from other parents, too.
"Knowing families who have the same problems, we learned from each other," she said. "Everybody has their own struggles, so I learned from what other families were dealing with. I got support from other families and advice from other families on what works for their own children. It was more like family collaboration."
Her sons have all completed kindergarten, first and second grade and her family recently moved to Howard County, so Adeyemi no longer participates in Great Start. She misses the program.
"It did change a lot," she said. "Any time I go to [my sons'] schools, the teachers say they see a lot of improvement. They ask my sons about it and they tell them that their mom helps with their homework. [The teachers] thank me for the input I'm having."