Drawing Inspiration

"I love to read and I love nature," Corrie Wallace says. "I love being outside by the water, walking or biking." (Anthony Souffle, for the Chicago Tribune / May 26, 2013)

Corrie Wallace has helped immigrant parents — from the Philippines, Mexico, Malawi, Russia, Poland, Pakistan and elsewhere — navigate the sometimes puzzling American public school system, giving them tools, as she says, to "help parents help their kids."

Wallace, 40, has been director of the Niles Township Schools' English Language Learners Parent Center in Skokie since it opened in 2008. Working with superintendents from the township's schools and partnering with community organizations, she has developed programs ranging from several levels of English classes to family literacy and computer instruction.

"We want to give people what they need so that they can go out and achieve their own objectives and goals and better themselves and their families," Wallace says.

In mid-July, her focus turns to a new job: the first director of equity and English Language Learners for Niles North and West high schools in District 219. It involves, she says, "looking at the curriculum, the students, the hiring, all pieces of the school system through a racial lens and seeing where there are areas of disproportionality, then making sure everyone has access to what they need to be successful, regardless of who they are or where they come from."

It will be a challenge. There are some 90 languages spoken in an area that is home to one of the largest concentrations of immigrants and refugees outside the city of Chicago.

Then again, Wallace's doesn't shy from challenges: "My father always said, if you're going to do something, you give it 110 percent or you don't do it at all ... but really (be) open to trying anything."

Born and raised in Skokie, Wallace is fluent in Spanish, graduated with a bachelor's degree in Spanish and women's studies from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, then added a master's in educational leadership from Western Michigan University. She has taught and volunteered in the U.S. and had teaching stints in Japan and Singapore. Wallace and her husband, Andre, have three children. Here's an edited transcript of a conversation with her.

Q: When you took the Parent Center job, were you were building a new program?

A: My job at the time was to work with the superintendents — 10 superintendents in four communities: Skokie, Morton Grove, Lincolnwood and Niles — and come up with programs to help parents learn how to navigate the American school system and access resources so their kids could be successful. … We started out with a relationship with Oakton Community College, where I provided space at the center, and they sent over a teacher to teach a family literacy class. … There are also community and high school volunteers who support programming as well.

Q: There must be challenges with a program that, as you put it, fosters the notion of respecting their culture while understanding American culture?

A: We want people to embrace American culture and to feel comfortable here, but they come from cultures that are very, very different. … So in our positive parenting and homework-help class, we teach people how to develop healthy relationships with their children and how to raise teens who are growing up as American teenagers when, culturally, your house is not American.

Q: In what other ways does that work?

A: I did a workshop for our parent-mentor program on supporting your child's bilingualism. We want our kids to be (at a) high, high level (in) English reading, writing, speaking, but also reading, writing and speaking whatever that other language is as well. And that is primarily a parent's job. Some groups, like Polish or Greek, may have Saturday schools where they learn to read and write those languages. Other groups not so much.

Q: You're very proud of the parent-mentor program. How did that come to be?

A: The parent-mentor program started in Logan Square. They've been doing it since the mid-'90s through the Logan Square Neighborhood Association. We applied for the funding, so now we have two parent-mentor programs: in Devonshire School and in Madison School. It has been transformative for those parents. It has really been a very meaningful way to engage parents in the community.

Q: You say people who come to the Parent Center (almost 1,000 since it opened) give you perspective?

A: It's amazing what people have gone through and what they do for their children and their families. … The people that are here, they are so motivated and they really want to learn, so they're very appreciative, and so it's very rewarding.

Q: Your husband's job in information technology took your family around the world. That had to be exciting.?

A: We moved to Tokyo when the kids were 2, 4 and 6 and were there for two years. Then (his company) asked if he could add Australia to his territory, so we moved to Singapore for a year and a half. … During that time I taught English at our local Japanese public school. … In Singapore, I taught Spanish to fourth- to sixth-grade kids. That was a wonderful experience for our family.

Q: But challenging as well?

A: When I went abroad, I thought, "Wow, I'm from Evanston … (and) I know about multiculturalism and diversity. I get this." And I got to Tokyo and was just blown away by what it means to be international and diverse. It was truly life changing. … (Living in Evanston) sort of reminds me of being overseas, because there are people from all over.

Q: Was education was important when you were growing up?

A: My mom and dad met at Southern Illinois University. My dad played football. He's from Mississippi. He's black. And he grew up in the segregated South. My mom grew up here in Chicago, when integration and all that was happening. She's white and Jewish, so we lived with my Jewish grandparents until I was 5. And my mom was always a huge supporter of education and literacy and reading. … And my father, because of his experience in the South and not very good schools, really, really pushed education.

Q: Did your family upbringing influence you in other ways?

A: Very often we'd go out, because we were a very big extended family, and people would say, "Oh, where did you get them?" If I was with my grandparents, they'd say, "My daughter married a black man, and she's our granddaughter," with a lot of pride. And it was always talked about in a very prideful way. … And I think that really contributed to who I am and the work that I do.

jhevrdejs@tribune.com