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Case Narrative

Johnson Elementary School
In the heart of South Central Los Angeles, Johnson Elementary looked desolate to many outsiders. The school district had continued to put money into programs and projects, instead of facilities and grounds. Almost no grass, trees, or shrubbery dotted the bleak area, and the buildings were shabby. The surrounding neighborhoods were made up primarily of third-generation Mexican-Americans and recent immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and other Central American countries. The former were often completely fluent in both English and Spanish, while the latter spoke mostly Spanish.

Johnson housed an active Parent Resource Center with a three-fold purpose. First, it provided educational services for parents and held both GED classes and ESL classes. The Center staff were also organizing a class in general parenting skills and a class for parents whose children had special needs. Second, the Center provided parents with brochures and booklets about various issues that were of interest to them, and maintained a lending library and a used clothing exchange. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Resource Center was a place where parents could just drop in to learn more about the teachers and school, either by chatting with the staff or with other parents who were there.

In the last month a number of parents had expressed their dissatisfaction with the current Parent Resource Center coordinator, Stephanie Hernandez. The parents alleged that Hernandez's close association with the school administration had allowed her to get her son, Anthony, into a specially designated course of study called the Science Classroom, even though, they argued, he did not have the appropriate skills, at times required extra attention from the teacher, and was somewhat disruptive in class on occasion. Many parents were angered by the situation and complaints of unfairness were being leveled against the administration. The parents were boycotting the Parent Resource Center to indicate their displeasure.

William South, Principal of Johnson Elementary School
William South, in his early fifties, sat in his office surrounded by mementos of his work at Johnson Elementary School. On the wall was a plaque given him by the Parent Teacher Organization for outstanding leadership in 1993, and pictures of each graduating class of sixth graders going back to 1986, the year he had started as principal at the school.

Devoted to both the school and the neighborhood, South had witnessed the massive demographic change in the area over the previous couple of years. He had taught at Johnson and a neighboring school for seven years, and believed that he was sensitive to many of the problems created by cultural differences. Always eager to make improvements at the school, South actively sought funding for innovative programs from the state and from the local Board of Education.

The year before, South and a number of his teachers had written a grant to address the overall drive throughout the district to raise test scores in math and science. The funding would be used to develop the Science Classroom and would be reserved for children who tested well in both subjects. “It is my belief, and the belief of a number of my teachers,” South had explained, “that to do this we need to start in the primary grades. The curriculum of our Science Classroom meets the requirements of fourth grade, but includes special exercises or knowledge that stimulates the students to think in scientific terms and develops skills that will enhance their abilities to succeed in these subjects in the upper grades.” South had introduced the class the previous fall.

The principal's desire for improvement had also sparked his interest in the Parent Resource Center, but he had embraced the project cautiously. “A school committee of teachers and the assistant principal helped select the five parents that were trained by a national parent involvement program, and recommended Stephanie Hernandez for the job of coordinator because of her long-term volunteer efforts at the school. We liked the idea of the Center very much, but the program seems to be creating a problem among a number of parents and, most importantly, it may affect the success of the Science Classroom.”

Stephanie Hernandez, Parent Resource Center Coordinator
Stephanie Hernandez had her first child, Lucia, at 19, while she and her husband were living with her parents in East Los Angeles. About three months later, she took a job and left her baby in her mother's care. After her second child, however, she became a full-time mother. A vibrant, enthusiastic person, now in her mid-thirties, Hernandez was talkative, persuasive, and very direct. “About seven months ago, I was asked to help with the Parent Resource Center as both a facilitator and the coordinator. About five of us parents who have helped in the schools were asked to participate in a program where we got special training to help parents with their kids and the schools. I got really excited about this program because I had gained so much from being at the school and seeing how parents could really help their kids through helping the teacher. I wanted to do more.”

Hernandez's involvement in her children's school was a result of an experience she had had with her eldest child, shortly after they had moved into their new house. “When Lucia was just entering junior high, she got some unsatisfactory grades in English and math. So I went to the teachers and I explained that we had just moved and that maybe Lucia was missing some of her friends who had lived close by our other house. Anyway, whatever the reason, I asked the teachers to give Lucia some extra help, and the next semester, her grades were definitely improved.”

With that lesson in mind, Hernandez did not hesitate when her younger daughter, Dawna, started having trouble with another girl in her classroom. After a meeting with the girl's mother brought no results, Hernandez went to the teacher and then began to sit in on the class regularly. The problem was solved after a couple of weeks, but she remained intrigued by the classroom and volunteered to help out two mornings every week. When her youngest child, Anthony, started first grade, she volunteered to help in his class also.

Hernandez spent a major portion of her day at Johnson Elementary School working in the classroom and coordinating the activities at the Parent Resource Center. Consequently, she was well informed about curriculum changes and heard about the Science Classroom when it was just in its planning stages. She was very excited about the educational opportunity for the children, and for her son Anthony, in particular. “I'm like any mom,” she explained. “I want the best for my kid and I'll try to make that happen. I knew Anthony didn't have the grades, but I thought I could convince the principal that he did have the aptitude and that we would certainly help him at home. Anthony isn't like my two daughters, who have excellent grades. But I've watched him carefully, and I do think he has the ability to do well with any subject. I thought the Science Classroom would be something he would really enjoy. He's the baby in the family and maybe we treat him a little differently, so he hasn't quite learned to apply himself the way my two older children have. I also wanted to separate him from his friends that get him in so much trouble all the time.”

Hernandez had presented South with her request to have Anthony placed in the Science Classroom, and when it was denied, she asked again. Finally, he suggested that the school counselor test Anthony. Once it was determined that Anthony was able to do the work, South agreed to enroll him in the class, with the provision that if his grades didn't improve, he wouldn't be able to stay. “Now it's even more important that I help in Anthony's classroom,” said Hernandez, “and I've tried to increase the time that I work there, even if it means not spending as much time at the Parent Resource Center. I know the teacher has to give my son extra attention, so it's my gift back to the teacher to help with the other children. Mr. Castanzo is a great teacher, and he has given me really good suggestions about how to help Anthony at home. I know that he'll make the Science Classroom a success, no matter what.”

Jessica Novato, School Counselor
A confident young woman with five years of counseling experience, Jessica Novato had been at Johnson Elementary School only one year, but felt she was making a substantial contribution. Like many schools, Johnson had a number of kids who had emotional difficulties and behavioral problems. “About 35 percent of the children come to me at least once a year for some issue,” explained Novato. “Sometimes they're feeling homesick for their native country, or one of their parents is unemployed, and there's a huge amount of extra stress in the family. In some instances, among some of the children whom I end up seeing on a regular basis for more complex problems, it takes a great amount of my time just to determine what the problems are. I thought I would be able to help Anthony Hernandez, and I really believe we are making some progress.”

Novato had responded to Principal South's request to give general aptitude tests in science and math to Anthony. “Anthony is certainly creative, but doesn't have a lot of the basic skills at this point,” said Novato. “I recommended, with some reservations, that he be placed in the Science Classroom and also suggested that we try to sort out some of the other difficulties that might be hindering his classroom abilities. There is no doubt that he's bright, but that doesn't always guarantee success in school. I do think that his mother was right to want to try to get him headed in a better direction. At the time Stephanie made the request, a lot of parents hadn't heard that much about the special Science Classroom.”

Novato's schedule with Anthony included one-on-one sessions twice a week, and a meeting with Anthony and his mother once a month. “The sessions are informal talks, and sometimes we play some games or do some role-playing,” Novato explained. “I've developed a good relationship with Stephanie, and I'm also in touch with the Science Classroom teacher, James Castanzo. But of course, these things take time. I'm very encouraged by what I see, and I hope that Anthony will continue in the class. I'm really interested in watching his development and the role that my involvement can play.”

James Castanzo, Science Classroom Teacher
James Castanzo, a native Los Angeleno in his thirties, had taught at Johnson Elementary for five years and was one of the teachers who conceived of the Science Classroom and designed its curriculum. “I don't think that Anthony necessarily belongs in my classroom,” he explained, “but it ultimately wasn't my choice whether to place him there or not. Anthony demands quite a lot of attention and can also be very funny, so he is quite a distraction to a number of my students. He takes a lot of my energy and I have to spend quite a bit of extra time with him.”

Yet Castanzo also noted the benefit of having Anthony in his class. “Anthony's presence in my class means that we have the help of his mother, who has proved to be an excellent teacher's aide,” he said. “Anthony is very well-behaved when his mother is in the class, and she is very good about attending to him as well as helping the other students, so she is quite an asset. We've also had some talks about how to help Anthony and how to encourage him to do his work at home. We've got a system worked out so that Anthony cannot skip any of the remedial work that he often has to do to catch up to the level of the other kids.”

In the past month, however, Castanzo, had noticed a growing tension between Hernandez and one of the other mothers who helped in the classroom. “I'm hoping that they can work it out between them, because I don't want to intervene,” Castanzo explained. “I'm not sure what the situation is, and these things can be kind of sticky sometimes. I've certainly made it clear to all the parents that they are welcome to come to class and participate, and I have encouraged them to do follow-up activities and work at home. I don't want to interfere because I don't want to cause anyone to back-off from their commitment to making this idea of a Science Classroom a big success.”

Carla Escoto, Parent of Student at Johnson Elementary School and Parent Resource Center Facilitator, and Margarita and Tomas Aguilar, Parents of Student at Johnson Elementary School
Margarita Aguilar had hoped that her fourth grade son would be placed in the Science Classroom, but was told in the spring that it was full. She was bothered by the way in which Hernandez had pulled her weight to get Anthony in the class, and her anger was shared by her husband, Tomas, and a number of their friends and other parents. Carla Escoto had a daughter in third grade, another in second, and was pregnant with her third child. She was adamant about having her children get a good education, and was one of the five facilitators trained to help out in the Resource Center.

“I've put a lot of time into the Parent Resource Center, but I don't really like coming that much anymore,” explained Escoto. “I agreed to be a facilitator for one year, and I'll continue to do my job, but I don't make it a point to just stop by and help out.” Aguilar agreed. “It just isn't the same anymore,” she complained. “When it first started, we all thought it was a great idea, and we really liked coming and having a place to meet the other mothers. Now we know that there are going to be some favorites and we just don't want to be involved in that.”

Escoto and Aguilar have friends whose children are in the Science Classroom, and receive weekly reports. “Our friend, Josephina, has a boy in the Science Classroom and although she's really pleased with the work he's doing, we hear a lot about the trouble that Anthony Hernandez causes,” said Aguilar. “Josephina helps out in the classroom twice a week and so she sees both the good side of the class and what problems the teacher is having,” she explained. Added Escoto, “Maybe Anthony should be in the special classroom, but from what we understand, he's causing a lot of problems. In our facilitator training, we were always told we should help parents get the best for their children, and we have often helped them reach the teachers or the principals so that an issue or problem can be settled. But what is best for one mother's child sometimes affects us all.”

Both women agreed that the problem was no longer just a matter of whether Anthony Hernandez should be in the Science Classroom. “I have another child in kindergarten and a three year old,” said Aguilar. “I'm very interested in helping my kids and helping the school, but we all think that something should be done about this situation. We like that Mr. South develops new programs for our children, but the programs should be for all our children, not just a few that he selects. It's not just us; a lot of people are bothered by this. People just aren't sure they're going to be treated fairly.” Added her husband Tomas, “Usually I let Margarita handle the children's things, but with this situation even I'm thinking about going to talk with the principal.”

Taking Action
William South called Jessica Novato and James Castanzo to his office. “I know we can get through what appears to be a thorny problem and we need to act with speed. However, I think we also need to consider how this affects our future programs. We need to think of the solutions to this particular problem, but we also should spend just a little time talking about how we might prevent a situation like this from happening again. The parents are seeing me tomorrow. I want your input into how to handle the situation.”

This case is not a representation of an actual event, but was conceived from research materials gathered by the Harvard Family Research Project, and prepared as a basis for instructional discussion. The individuals and organizations, including the Parent Resource Center and the Johnson Elementary School, are fictitious and created by the author. This work is supported in part by the DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund, as part of its School/Family Partnership Initiative, and by Kraft Foods, an operating company of the Philip Morris Companies.



Discussion Questions

  • How do you think the key players in the case—teacher, parents, principal, child—feel about Anthony's placement in the Science Classroom for gifted students?
  • What do you think the pressures and motives of each person were that influenced their actions?
  • What other factors may have played a part in the current situation?
  • How is this situation likely to affect each person's view of the Parent Resource Center and volunteer work in general?
  • How might this situation, including Stephanie's volunteer work in the classroom and the current parent and teacher tensions, affect Anthony's behavior problems?
  • How should the tension between Stephanie and other parent volunteers be addressed? Who should address it?
  • Do you agree or disagree with the actions of the teacher, principal, or parents? Why? What alternative approaches might you take?
  • Have you ever found yourself in a similar situation? What was the situation, and how did you respond?



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Published by Harvard Family Research Project