Sierra, Yasmin and Marcos Medina walk with their father Joab across the playground, wet from an afternoon storm, and into the century-old Longfellow Elementary School. The oldest, Sierra, 12, hides much of her face behind curly black locks, but can’t conceal her smile. They arrive at the door together. But, rather than just seeing his kids in and heading back home, Joab walks right in.
Joab Medina is one of a legion of active, involved parents at Longfellow, 1021 S. 21st St., in Clarke Square. It’s a role he cherishes so much that rather than enroll his kids in the West Allis school directly across the street from his home, he’s been driving them to Longfellow for three years. This year, he’s moving back to Milwaukee, just to secure enrollment slots at Longfellow for his children this school year and beyond.
Although about 20,000 students go to private schools through the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program and other MPS schools have low enrollment, Longfellow has a waiting list. But why? The explanation is simple. For the Medinas, like many other families at Longfellow, the school is not just a place where children are educated, but their parents as well.
“I felt welcome there because I was never overlooked; I was there to learn and to find out where my children needed help,” Medina said.
A hands-on-approach for parents, children and educators is not unusual at Longfellow. Parent volunteers such as Medina, can be found there regularly, walking the narrow, hardwood halls. While most schools encourage parental involvement, Longfellow lives and dies by it. School administrators say it’s the key to their success.
“If we don’t have that bridge built between home and school, then we stand alone,” said Mary Lou Navarro, parent coordinator for the last 15 years at Longfellow.
Navarro’s job is to build unity and increase communication between parents and teachers so parents are able to reinforce lessons their children learned in the classroom. What makes the approach at Longfellow different from other MPS schools is that as children are absorbing lessons in classrooms, school staff members are busy helping parents learn about themselves. Navarro said that many parents are reluctant to come to school because they lack a formal education, but they’re not giving themselves credit for the life skills they have. She pushes them to enter the doors; to never be ashamed to come to school and learn.
“We give them credit for what they do know, and guide them to use what they have,” Navarro said.
After parents drop their kids off at Longfellow, Navarro leads a group session she calls “coffee klatch.” It’s a time to share not just coffee and snacks, but companionship and ideas.
“Each day we present the parents with a question such as basics like should you spank, or what are the best ways to potty train and even harder topics such as whether or not you should provide your teenager with birth control,” Navarro said.
The exchange of ideas helps parents open up to other viewpoints about topics that can be tough to talk about at home. In addition to the informal time Navarro spends with parents, the school offers English as a Second Language classes and nutrition training, among other lessons. The parents’ self-empowerment gives them the confidence to take charge of their child’s education, according to Navarro. It’s a strategy that has served the school well over the years.
“The parents and the children are the focus of everything we do here,” said Wendell Smith, principal of Longfellow.
The school’s openness makes Medina feel welcome. It is in stark contrast to his own experiences as a youngster at MPS, where he felt disregarded. “As a youngster I was hyperactive and instead of finding a way to keep me in school they were finding ways to keep me out,” Medina said.
One of the biggest obstacles to parental involvement at school is when a parent has had harmful schooling experiences during his or her own childhood, according to Navarro.
“It’s very hard to get parents to look past their own negative experiences at school,” Navarro said.
But Medina knew he had to get involved. One of his daughters, who has attention deficit disorder (ADD), has had behavior problems and difficulty staying focused in class. In response, Longfellow brought in a special education teacher to work specifically with her. On days when the special attention wasn’t working, the school would notify Medina and he’d come in unannounced and sit in class. The open door policy extends to all parents, according to Smith.
Medina said that friends have questioned his decision to move back to Milwaukee to keep his kids in MPS, and his West Allis neighborhood has fewer challenges than the Clarke Square neighborhood he moved from. But, he knows he’s welcome there, and he likes that the neighborhood and the school are ethnically and linguistically diverse.
Noted Smith, “We want our bilingual children to leave here and be able to function in both languages; we try to celebrate the distinctions between them and other groups.”
Unlike many schools that teach diversity by celebrating cultural heroes and holidays, Longfellow focuses on commonalities between differing cultures. By teaching children that all cultures have things in common, the school attempts to narrow the door to racism. Each year, classrooms adopt a culture, and each student writes a report and creates an item pertinent to that culture.
Last year, Sierra adopted Peru, while Yasmin adopted Colombia. All the school’s students come together and celebrate the adopted cultures on “Mercado Day,” during the third week of school. On that day, a visitor will see the children, a collage of colors and ethnicities, dancing together to the sounds of Latin Salsa, Medina said.
“They look like one big family.”