Patterson families team to learn

PATTERSON — Twice a week, Veronica Zarate attends first grade with her son Justin. Together, they learn how to read and write in English.

Six-year-old Justin says he likes that his mom can help him with homework.

"I like that she helps me learn," said the Northmead Elementary School student Tuesday as he read "Mooncake" with his mom. Later, the two matched small drawings of images with corresponding words, such as jam, sun and pig.

"I'm better at school, I learn more," Justin said.

Nearly 70 parents participate in a national family literacy program at three Patterson elementary schools — Northmead, Walnut Grove and Grayson Charter. The goal is to teach parents English, and get them involved in their children's education.

Some of the parents are illiterate in Spanish and English, while most parents read and write at the sixth-grade level, officials said.

Zarate spends an hour in Justin's classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays and takes English classes at the school for three hours on Wednesdays and Fridays. The biggest benefit for Zarate is seeing how public schools teach students so she can duplicate that at home.

"The methodology of learning is very different than in Mexico," said Zarate, who has a bachelor's degree in education from a Mexican university. After improving her English language skills, she hopes to become an elementary school or special education teacher.

In its first year at Patterson Joint Unified School District, the Toyota Family Literacy Program is funded by the automaker. Since 2003, five districts a year have won grants to bring literacy projects to public schools.

Patterson is the smallest district to win the funding — $600,000 over three years.

The program focuses on immigrant Latino families because many of them face education barriers — students from poor families with parents who have little education and who don't speak English at home tend to be less successful than their counterparts, said Sharon Darling, president and founder of the National Center for Family Literacy. The center coordinates the program with Toyota and school districts.

"This is a multigenerational solution. The predictors of success — educational attainment of parents, poverty status and speaking English at home — those are not within the confines of the schoolhouse. The goal is to carry learning into the home," she said. Darling was on hand Tuesday along with Toyota representatives, educators, parents and students to highlight the completion of the program's first year.

Mom Beatris Martinez has noticed a difference in her son. Since she started the literacy program last fall, she and son Isael,6, read together every day.

"My son is doing much better. He hates reading, but I read with him and now he likes reading," Martinez said. Through the literacy classes, Martinez said she's learned how to parent better and to help support Isael's education.

Martinez added that she's learning better English and plans to leverage that into a better-paying job.

Patterson's program is open to families with children in kindergarten through third grade.

Walnut Grove Principal Steve Charbonneau said parents have gained confidence after learning how schools are structured. He said they come in and ask questions more often. Some are volunteering more and serving on school committees.

"These parents are getting empowered, some of them want to get their GEDs," Charbonneau said. "It's a complete package for families."

The staff is gathering advice on how to continue the family literacy project after Toyota's funding runs out. They hope to partner with agencies such as the Parents Institute for Quality Education and Modesto Junior College.

Officials also hope to provide a model for other school districts in Stanislaus County and the region.

"This will continue long after the money is gone," Darling said.

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at or 578-2339.