LAWRENCE — Whether it's kindergarten, elementary or high school, it's usually the children who graduate. 

But in Lawrence recently, it was the parents' turn.

On the evening of Nov. 21, some 43 parents of children who attend the Tarbox School on Alder Street in Lawrence graduated from a two-year-old program that teaches the nuts and bolts of being a parent to students going to school in the modern era.

"I want to do it again," gushed Neryes Mateo, whose two children -- Richard Ramos, 10, and Melanie Ramos, 6 -- both of whom attend Tarbox. "I learned a lot of things I never would have thought of."

In the Tarbox auditorium one evening last week, dozens of children ran around with their friends while their parents sat at round tables food served from a long table set up against the wall.

A short graduation ceremony followed by dinner and some socializing was just the latest in a series of graduation ceremonies held by the Lawrence Family Institute for Student Success, a program that teaches parents about the schools their children go to.

Over the course of nine weeks, parents learn "everything from how report cards work to helping kids deal with peer pressure to understanding high school graduation requirements," said school spokesman Chris Markuns.

In all, 155 parents from four Lawrence schools — including Wetherbee School middle grades, Tarbox, Parthum Elementary, and the Oliver Partnership School — graduated from the program this year.

Last year, 80 families from two schools — Arlington Middle and the elementary grades at the Wetherbee — graduated.

As simple as the course may sound on the surface, and while many parents in other school districts may take such information for granted, it is actually a highly evolved, nationwide program that tries to put children, and their parents, on the path to academic and lifelong success.

The director of the program, Maria Campusano, said the local version is actually part of a much larger program called PIQE, or Parent Institute of Quality Education, out of California.

PIQE, which is affiliated with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has been around for more than 30 years, teaching mostly low-income, non-English speaking families about American schools.

According to the organization's website, "PIQE empowers parents and educators to collaborate together to help transform a student’s educational environment, both at home and at school. PIQE, which launched in California in 1987, is built on the belief that parents are a child’s first teacher, and schools can’t do it alone."

The website goes on to say that "PIQE works to connect low-income parents to their schools and serve as advocates for their kids. PIQE understands the barriers to family engagement. Many of these families don’t speak English, have demanding work schedules or did not graduate from high school themselves, and as a result don’t know how to best engage with their school."

'We are very informed'

Mateo said she learned a lot about what was going on at Tarbox, as well as some of the terminology used by educators that may baffle people not heavily involved in schools.

"I learned about a GPA," she said, referring to grade point average and how important it becomes in high school. "I learned about opportunities for college."

Just as importantly, she said, she met a lot of parents who are in similar circumstances.

"I met a mom who is my son's best friend's mom," she said, adding that such an introduction will make it easier in the future to set up play-dates or other joint activities.

She said one of the best things about the nine-week program, which meets once a week either in the morning or afternoon, was that for people taking the afternoon classes, daycare was provided.

Erla Mas, whose sons Esdras, 5, and Jonathan, 11, got to Tarbox, said she also loved it.

"I learned about many things, including self-discipline, self-esteem, expectations for each grade and financial aid," she said.

In remarks to graduates, Mas, president of the Tarbox PTO, congratulated the parents.

"Today we can say that we are not concerned, but that we are very informed," she said. "Today we can motivate and invite other parents to participate and learn from these LFISS classes so that they can get a lot of knowledge, as we have achieved today." 

'Families are empowered'

Campusano said "every lesson is guided. It talks about what they do at school and at home. We teach about delayed gratification. How and when to expect a present from their parents."

The copyrighted program, she said, teaches life lessons while also answering basic questions. 

"Families are empowered to work with teachers so they can ask the right questions," she said. "It gives parents the proper tools. Plus, teachers get professional development days to learn how to implement the program."

David Valladolid, the president and CEO of PIQE, explained on the website that the program is all about motivating parents.

“We have learned that once the parents understand how to be engaged, how to ask questions, how to advocate for their children’s rights to ensure they get a high-quality education, they move into action," he said.

 In Lawrence, the program is budgeted to return every other year, Markuns said, although individual schools can sign up and pay for it out of their own budgets if they want to.

Parents interested in taking part in the program should keep an eye on fliers sent home with their kids.

"Once a school commits to hosting, they do an extensive outreach to their families," Markuns said, "including one-to-one phone calls, letters home, and fliers."

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