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Connecting with the community: Earl Boyles hires parents as preschool assistants

“It’s playing, my whole day is playing. That’s what it feels like to me,” says preschool assistant Andrea Lopez Thorsnes. She’s smiling from ear to ear. Moments before, she was in a preschool classroom at southeast Portland’s Earl Boyles Elementary School, site of the Early Works initiative. Since September, Lopez Thorsnes has worked there as an assistant teacher. She is an Earl Boyles parent and one of three long-time community members who were hired to be preschool assistants this fall.

Meri Cullins is also an Earl Boyles parent and new preschool assistant. She finds it very fulfilling work, to play with the students and see them learn new things each day. “I love watching something click, when they know it and they own it,” Cullins says.

What looks and feels like play for Cullins and Lopez Thorsnes means much more for the children they work with. All day long they guide and support them as they learn, grow and try new things.

ALT-slide-webFor example, during recess time Lopez Thorsnes interacted with a little boy who wanted to play on the slide. He touched the slide, then looked up at her and said, “It’s hot!”

Lopez Thorsnes felt the slide too. “It is a little warm from the sun,” she said. “Shall we try it together?”

The little boy nodded. They slid down together. A few minutes later, he was happily sliding on his own.

Hiring for positions like the preschool assistant from within the community helps the Earl Boyles teaching staff better reflect the student and neighborhood population. It’s also one way that the school supports families. Along with building a partnership to provide preschool for 90 three- and four-year-olds in the school's catchment area, the Early Works initiative has helped Earl Boyles successfully take on a range of challenges and changes to become a more welcoming environment that really helps children and families succeed. This includes a very active parent bilingual parent group, a lending library open to families of all ages, and including parent leaders in strategy and decision-making groups.

Hiring, supporting, and adequately compensating an early learning workforce that reflects the culture and community of the children enrolled in preschool is a statewide and national challenge. Earl Boyles and Early Works leaders have started to tackle this problem head on because they know it is vital in creating the highest quality learning environment for children and families.

 “Having parents as part of the teaching team is invaluable,” says Andreina Velasco, the Children’s Institute’s Early Works Site Liaison at Earl Boyles. “Parents bring the perspective of families into their classroom teaching practice, including their use of students’ home language and connections with the neighborhood and other family members. At the school and district levels, they are powerful role models of how family and community engagement can change the staff and culture to more accurately reflect the student body.”

MC-beanbags-webCullins, Earl Boyles parent and new preschool assistant, adds: “For the neighborhood, school jobs mean economic stability and social mobility, which ultimately make it a better place for students and families”

Cullins grew up in the area, and specifically chose the Earl Boyles catchment area as where she wanted to live and raise her kids. She was drawn to “the passion the teachers have and everything Earl Boyles does to support the community,” she says. “Not just the kids, but the whole family unit.” Her youngest son is three and attends the Earl Boyles preschool.

The preschool assistants are learning through their training and work with the teachers about how to help children take ownership over their actions. Rather than commanding, the teachers and assistants help guide children to identify what they should be doing and self-correct. It’s about giving the student the power to make his or her own choice. “It takes a lot longer,” Cullins says. “But it’s important to take the time for the child to realize something for himself.”

Cullins also says that these techniques have come in handy at home with her preschool-aged son. “He is full of energy and impulsive, so talking about choices and giving him choices really works,” she says. “Preschool is also helping him because he sees the expectations are the same for him across the board.”

The preschool teachers at Earl Boyles are thrilled to have such great support from the new assistants. Preschool teacher Natalie Stemler says she has never before had the quality of support she has now at Earl Boyles in her eleven years of teaching preschool. She says her assistants “independently run small groups, redirect behavior during large group time, and demonstrate the confidence and ability to run the classroom.”

Stemler says Cullins, who works in her classroom, “demonstrates a strong set of skills to work with children with special needs, which is essential to the functioning of our classroom.”

Early Works and Earl Boyles will continue the efforts to engage and support families to succeed. With partners at Metropolitan Family Service’s SUN program and funding from Multnomah County, the school has recently hired a family resource navigator to help families in the school's catchment area identify and access the social service and other resources they need. At the same time, the partners will continue to expand programming for families and children of all ages in Earl Boyles’ neighborhood center.

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