SAMOHI — Consuelo Perez looked every inch the consummate professional that she is when she approached the podium to deliver her report on the English Learners’ Advisory Committee (ELAC) to the Board of Education.
In her native Spanish, she eloquently made the case for keeping whole the funding for Spanish-language classes for students who are still learning English so that they can succeed in their studies alongside their English-language classmates.
Perez was late to that meeting, said Aida Diaz, the education services coordinator for the district, because she had just returned from a meeting with officials at City Hall advocating on a similar topic.
“I don’t pay attention to the time,” Perez said over breakfast the week before. “I love what I’m doing.”
A bowl of oatmeal and fixings lay untouched in front of her as she described “what she’s doing” — forging a community of Spanish-speaking parents of Santa Monica High School students and making sure they have the information they need to support their kids as they work to achieve the goal of getting into a four-year university.
People who have migrated to the United States from Spanish-speaking countries, like Perez herself, have different ideas about what the role of parents in a child’s education should be, she said.
In those countries, parents drop their kids off at the school and come by to pick them up at the end of the day, with little need to involve themselves in the details of testing and process.
It’s a different story in the United States, where you must be educated on the process early to make sure critical deadlines like practice SATs, testing, applications to schools and even financial aid don’t get passed over.
“Parents were never involved at school,” said Board of Education President Jose Escarce, whose own family migrated to Florida from Cuba. “When they come here, they don’t know how.”
Perez has made it her mission to educate and empower Spanish-speaking parents that otherwise can become wallflowers at purely English-speaking PTA meetings, disengaged by dint of the language barrier and the unfamiliar role they’re being asked to play.
She knows all too well what they’re going through.
In the late 1980s, Perez found herself a single mother of four living in the Pico Neighborhood with a very limited grasp of the English language.
Her children were, one by one, enrolling in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, with the eldest daughter set to graduate in 1994, and she was seeing that although kids were going into the schools, few were coming out prepared for the four-year education that their parents dreamed would come next.
Part of the problem was that despite the large population of Spanish speakers, the system wasn’t prepared to meet the needs of those students in a real way.
Mailers only went out in English, and parents — some of whom couldn’t read Spanish either — were missing critical information and watching their children fail at getting into the universities that they viewed as being the best way up in the world.
“I could not go to school, and I wanted my kids to be able to go,” Perez said. “They were pioneers (of the Edison Language Academy bilingual program). Then, they get to high school and I find out there’s no communication in Spanish, there were gangs and kids were dropping out.”
Despite her own struggles with the language, Perez became a one-woman whirlwind of change in the district.
Her first issue was simply access to information in Spanish, but she did not stop there.
She revitalized ELAC, a parent support group, and took on the administration to get information from the school out in both English and Spanish.
Perez, understanding from her own experience how difficult it was to crack into the system, began lining up speakers who could give presentations to parents on a host of critical issues, like how to tell if your child was experimenting with drugs, or what classes students should enroll in for graduation and college applications.
As the years passed, the monthly meetings of ELAC became better attended, boasting up to 80 parents. As they began to come, she learned of new issues that needed addressing, such as providing childcare to make sure parents could come to the meetings, or addressing concerns about communicating with teenagers being raised in a different culture.
Perez found that many parents didn’t know until too late that their children were failing classes, so she went to the administration and got additional progress reports sent home so parents could see when they needed to intervene in their child’s schooling.
More recently, she developed computer classes specifically for Spanish-speaking parents to make sure they knew how to access information about their students’ grades through the school’s computer tracking system, called Pinnacle.
Her biggest accomplishment to date, however, has been the annual Spanish-language college fair that Perez organizes every year in September, over a month before the same event takes place for the wider Samohi population.
Parents and children can go and speak to recruiters in their own language, pick up materials and get some of their initial questions answered before they go to the October event.
“She wants the parents to go to the October one so that they can be part of the system,” Diaz said. “Then they already know about all of the colleges, the UCs and Cal States. Then it’s not a new experience for them.”
For the passion, time and energy she puts into the gig, you’d think she was getting something out of it, but not only is Perez’ work all volunteer, she no longer has any children in the district to benefit from her labors.
“She does this as a single parent. She’s so focused and so warm,” said Lauri Crane, a member of the PTSA that acts as a liaison between the main parent group and ELAC. “Her youngest graduated a year ago. She’s doing all of this because she sees a need.”
The needs of the Spanish-speaking community of Santa Monica are still very real. Although gang-involvement is no longer the problem it was in the mid-1990s when Perez’ first child began at Samohi, the school district as a whole received a failing grade from an independent organization for the achievement gap between white and minority students.
Parents still struggle to raise their children around multiple jobs, and communication — never easy between parents and teens — is made even harder by the language barrier.
In short, Perez’ work is never done.
“She’s courageous, humble and impressive,” said Rochelle Fanali, who works with Crane and Perez as a second PTSA liaison.
To date, there’s no one in the ELAC parent community prepared to take over the role that Perez has played for the last 17 years. Although Perez hopes that there is an end in sight, she plans to keep going as long as she’s needed.
At the last meeting, a happy parent came to Perez with a small potted plant, a token of her gratitude for the work Perez had done on her behalf.
“She said, ‘I hope you can stay here forever,’” Perez recalled. “I told her if you want me, I’ll be here for you.”