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Illinois parent mentors kick off the school year, ready to get back into classrooms

A group of people sit in the bleachers at Harry S Truman Community College in Chicago. Holding signs along a bright green floor.

Illinois’ Parent Mentor Program welcomed almost 300 participants at Harry S. Truman Community College to celebrate the start of the new year.

Courtesy of the Parent Mentor Program

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Last year, Pearlie Aaron volunteered as a parent mentor at the school her 10-year-old daughter attends — McKinley Elementary in Bellwood School District 88. Aaron got a chance to work with students on classroom assignments and receive professional development with other parent mentors for about two hours a day.

Now, Aaron is a program coordinator at McKinley for the Parent Mentor Program, a state-funded initiative run by Palenque Liberating Spaces through Neighborhood Action and the Southwest Organizing Project.

On Friday, Aaron and hundreds of other parent program coordinators  — mostly Black and Latino women from Chicago and the suburbs — sat in a packed auditorium at Harry S. Truman Community College on the city’s North Side to celebrate the start of a new school year. 

“When we talk about growing our own from within, this is the program to do that. We have such a shortage of teachers, it’s clear to see that these parents love education,” said Aaron. “These are future teachers sitting in this room.”

The Parent Mentor Program has around 2,000 parent mentors and staff in over 200 schools, at almost 40 school districts around the state, according to a press release. The organization works with 44 community-based organizations across the state to help recruit parents from their neighborhoods.

Through the program, community organizations train parents to work in their child’s school — experience that they can later use to work in classrooms as a special education classroom assistant or toward becoming a teacher. 

Some parents have worked with local organizations to obtain a GED, learn English, and receive their credentials to become a paraprofessional in classrooms. The program already has helped more than 200 parents become paraprofessionals — helping fill much-needed positions, according to the group’s press release from last week..

A state database that tracks unfilled school positions over 2,600 paraprofessional vacancies across the state. According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, students with Individualized Education Programs are required to have a paraprofessional if it is included in their programs. 

During the 2022 legislative session, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law a bill that lowers the age for paraprofessionals working in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade classrooms to 18 years old — part of a state effort to get more paraprofessionals into classrooms. 

State Sen. Mike Simmons, a Democrat representing neighborhoods on the North Side of Chicago, showed up at Friday’s event to show support for the parent mentor initiative. During the spring legislative session, he and his colleagues pushed for the program to get more funding. Simmons said he is invested in the program and watching it expand in school. 

“I’m tired of seeing our moms, especially our Black and Brown moms, expected to do ten different jobs. They are already being underpaid in the labor force, they are expected to take care of their children in a context where there is no universal child care,” said Simmons. “We need to compensate our parents for doing hard work that goes well beyond their households.”

The Logan Square Neighborhood Association founded the Parent Mentor Program in 1995. In 2013, the program was able to secure funding from the Illinois State Board of Education and has worked to either grow or maintain that amount of funding with the help of legislators. 

At the celebration on Friday, Sabrina Jackson and other parent program coordinates said they are excited to continue recruiting more parents throughout the school year. 

Jackson recruits parents to help out at 10 schools in the Englewood neighborhood, located on the South Side of Chicago. 

The best part of the program is watching parents realize their own leadership potential by participating in schools, said Jackson. 

“We help them enhance those skills and we help them breakout of being a parent just at home,” said Jackson. “By becoming a parent that is a part of the school and becoming a change agent for their child’s education, they see that their input matters. It’s really great.”

Samantha Smylie is the state education reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering school districts across the state, legislation, special education, and the state board of education. Contact Samantha at ssmylie@chalkbeat.org.

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