Children were scattered around the floor of the art room in Eldridge Park Elementary School. Each clutching an assortment of books, some stretched out on their stomachs kicking their legs in the air in anticipation, they appeared mesmerized by the teacher as she recited a poem about the wonders of reading:
Read to me, read to me,
Night and day,
Open up the books
And tell me what they say.
Read to me, read to me,
The world is mine,
Tell me all about it,
Line by line.
Read to me, read to me,
Stories old and new.
Sit with me,
And read to me,
I love it when you do!
The poetry reading was just one part of a recent meeting of Latinos Unidos, a group created by ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher Angeline Sturgis at the school on Lawn Park Avenue over two years ago.
Sturgis – who has been named 2012-2013 Teacher of the Year for both Lawrence Township and Mercer County – became inspired to start the group during the 2010-2011 school year when she realized that about 10 Spanish-speaking families with children in her class did not know one another even though they were all facing similar issues like child care.
Since its inception, Latinos Unidos has blossomed to offer a host of services, including English language tutors for parents and a literacy-at-home initiative.
At the group’s first meeting of the current school year, 11 new families attended. Sturgis called each new family to the center of the room to introduce themselves and state where they are from.
"¡Hola! Soy de México!" and "¡Soy de Guatemala!" were some of the introductions heard.
Soon after Sturgis began introducing the families back in 2010, she realized many of the children did not own books.
"At that point, I realized these parents were all born in another country and have a different experience when it comes to school," said Sturgis. "A lot of them weren't able to finish their schooling for financial reasons in their country, but they were really eager to know what does a parent do for a school child in the United States."
In addition to a language barrier, cultural differences play a role in the parents' interactions with their children's teachers.
In the Spanish culture, teachers are held in high regard and parents are not to question anything a teacher says, according to Maria R. Juega, executive director of Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
"They're not used to the role parents play in the typical American school district," said Juega. "They're not used to going to talk to the teacher; whatever the teacher says is fine. So there are many aspects that are unknown to these families beyond the basic language barrier and cultural barrier."
Participants of Latinos Unidos agree the group has opened up the dialogue between parents and teachers.
"Even though we spoke the same language in our town [in Mexico], there was always something in between the teacher and the students," said Nieves Martinez, mother of two boys who attend Eldridge Park. "I like that we feel comfortable and we learned that if one of our kids needs help the teachers are here for us."
Incorporating parents into their children's education is evident when Sturgis joins the adults awaiting a guest speaker in the school library. She announces that each child is going home with five books free of charge, then asks, "You know these books aren't just for the children to look at on their own. What is it they are for?"
The parents respond, "They are for us to read to them!"
"I like that [Ms. Sturgis] keeps up the CD player and books to read at home," said Leticia Martinez. "My son, Benjamin, sits on the couch and says 'Oh, I like to read and I enjoy it too.'"
Each Latinos Unidos meeting also features dinner and dessert; this evening’s meeting drew over 80 people.
"There is no way these people could come home from work, prepare a meal, be with their children; the kids are scrubbed clean when they come," said Sturgis. "It couldn't happen unless we had the food."
Sturgis depends on donations from area restaurants to supply a large portion of the food.
She has an interesting way of encouraging local businesses to donate food to the meetings. “I have a piece of paper on the front of the donation packet that says, 'I know you know how hard these Latino families work because they're running your kitchens for you.'"
She says most local businesses are happy to help. The vodka penne served that night was provided by Limoncello in the Lawrence Shopping Center. Teachers and staff lend a hand as well. For this meeting, Principal Kathy Robbins brought meatballs and Sturgis made a vegetable dish.
Besides dinner and dessert, each meeting includes a guest speaker to address issues about which the Latino community may not be aware, according to Sturgis.
On this night, Juega spoke to the audience about the process to receive a Mercer County-issued photo identification and also about Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals which allows individuals who came to the United States illegally as children to apply for worth authorization.
"[Deferred Action] will help the population you really want to be here – the population who has grown up here, who has studied in the system here, who, just by chance, were born in another country," said Melinda Roche, program director of LALDEF. "A lot of them have a path to be able to give back to America, to give back to the community that educated them."
The two most common reasons immigrants say they entered the U.S. illegally are poverty and violence, according to Roche.
"You hear the stories of people living in the States who just come or are here illegally and you can think to yourself 'How is it that they would want to come and live in these situations?'" said Roche. "It's much worse at home."
Roche says many immigrants enter the United States on a visa but are unfamiliar with the system or how to gain legal status. Subsequently, they remain here illegally.
"And that is what we try to help with, to help them understand how to navigate the system, how to find resources, how to understand how to help their children better, and help themselves," Juega said.
During another recent meeting, a representative of the Lawrence Township Recreation Department spoke about the various art classes and competitive and instructional sports available to township residents.
Sturgis has found that members of the Spanish-speaking community are less aware of the classes and services available to residents, which is why she makes it a point to discuss available programs at Latinos Unidos meetings.
"We have things like Spanish-speaking therapists and family counseling," Sturgis said. "Everybody needs to know about the social services that are available, and all of this information is being delivered in Spanish, so yeah that's important."