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Guadalupe Batalla was trying to get involved in the parent-teacher association, but she felt useless.
She sat through meeting after meeting that she could barely understand because she spoke little English. Because the parents and school staffers knew only English, they rarely talked to her. She was intimidated but adamant to participate because she knew its importance.
"Our voice wasn't being heard because we weren't involved," Batalla says of Latinos. "American parents were making the decisions."
Now, years later, Batalla says she finally found a school, and PTA, that embraces her.
Utah PTA leaders say there is something "unique and amazing" about the PTA at Northwest Middle School in Rose Park - a neighborhood historically plagued with struggling schools, low test scores and poor parent involvement. And it starts with Batalla.
She is the school's PTA president this year, making her and the campus an example of what might happen, school leaders say, when administrators reach out to often-ignored minority parents.
Making history en espa ol: Batalla is the state's first non-English-speaking PTA president and one of a handful of Latinos in the post statewide. She is also the only minority out of 30 PTA presidents in the Salt Lake City School District, where minorities make up 52 percent of the student population.
When Batalla first walked into Northwest in fall 2004, she was stunned when the school's principal, Cherrie Brinlee, who only speaks English, and Assistant Principal James Yapias, who speaks English and Spanish, encouraged her to join the PTA and talked to her about trying to increase Latino involvement. She paid a $5 membership fee and joined.
School leaders often ask parents for suggestions and give her "the confidence to ask questions," says Batalla, who is studying English.
"They treat me just like if I was at home," says the 34-year-old mother of four daughters. "Their doors are always open - not just for me, but for all the parents."
Gricelda McDermott, the PTA's bilingual treasurer, says she's glad she joined the group in August when her foster child started at the school. McDermott, a computer graphics artist, creates several of the PTA's signs, brochures and invitations in English and Spanish.
"This is a school that is trying to give . . . more power to the Hispanic community," she says. "It's nice to see that we can make a difference."
School leaders say they want students and their families to feel welcome on campus, where everyone who walks into the school is greeted.
At Northwest, three-fourths of students are minorities and 60 percent are Latino, according to school records.
On the city's west side, including Rose Park, more than half of families speak a language other than English at home, U.S. census information shows.
Aside from improving test scores, Yapias says one of the school's top goals is to get more parents involved.
To do that, school staffers call parents and conduct home visits, and Brinlee puts together bilingual newsletters.
"You can't expect the kids to do well if the parents aren't on your team," says Yapias, who's serving his second school year at Northwest.
A perfect example: After just one visit to Northwest, PTA Regional Director Kathleen Handy says she was impressed with the school's well-organized PTA and immediately noticed the camaraderie between the school leaders, teachers and Spanish-speaking parents - despite the language barrier.
"It takes a community to successfully educate children," says Handy, who oversees the Salt Lake groups. "[Northwest] is a perfect example of what community involvement can do at a school."
Handy says there are many challenges school leaders and teachers face in trying to get Latino parents involved. Many of them only speak Spanish; many are undocumented residents and are reluctant to come to the school; and others work multiple jobs and don't have the time.
The partnership among Batalla and school leaders is an example for other schools that parents don't have to speak English to get involved, Handy says.
"[Batalla] is perfect," Handy says. "She is exactly the role model that we need at other schools."
Some Latinos think the schools are part of an authority system, so they don't feel comfortable there, says Utah PTA President Carmen Snow.
"Sometimes, they don't feel as welcomed," says Snow, who oversees the state's 650 PTAs.
Snow, a 25-year PTA veteran, says there is no statewide effort to try to get more minority parents involved in schools. It's up to the school and its PTA to organize programs to outreach to minorities, she says.
But, for the first time in PTA history, there will be Spanish translators available for members at the state's annual PTA conference in May in hopes that Spanish-speaking parents attend, Snow says.
A growing PTA : For Batalla, PTA gives her an excuse to be on campus to support her 14-year-old daughter and learn more about the school system.
Batalla remembers that her mother was often involved in school activities when she was growing up in Taxco, Mexico. Batalla, who moved to Utah a decade ago, wants to do the same for her daughter.
"I always want to be behind her, making sure she gets where she wants to go," says Batalla, who trained as a secretary but is a stay-at-home mom.
Now, as a Northwest parent leader, Batalla says she's recruiting others to get involved by teaching them how they can participate and why it's important. She tells them that they should visit their child's school at least once a week.
The school has a list of more than 300 parent volunteers, but only about 25 are active PTA members.
Still, the group has managed to organize several events, such as yard sales, the Dia de los Madres/Mother's Day celebration and a teacher-appreciation luncheon, where parents made cheese-and-chicken enchiladas for the school's staff.
Recently, the PTA organized a recruitment meeting at 6 p.m. at the school. Only two people attended.
Marycarmen Bera, who speaks Spanish, showed up with her 12-year-old son and was pushing her 8-month-old daughter in a stroller. She says she just wanted to learn more about the PTA.
"I want to know how to help the school community," Bera says.
Northwest Middle School
l Latino: 459 = 60%
l White: 185 = 24%
l Pacific Islander: 44 = 6%
l Black: 36 = 4.5%
l Asian: 35 = 4.5%
l American Indian: 11 = 1%
l Total: 770
SLC School District
l White: 11,350 = 48%
l Latino: 8,516 = 36%
l Pacific Islander: 1,213 = 5%
l Black: 1,087 = 4.5%
l Asian: 1,067 = 4.5%
l American Indian: 426 = 2%
l Other: 41
l Total: 23,700
Quick facts on SLC school district PTAs
l 22 out of 27 elementary schools have a PTA.
l Riley, Meadowlark, Edison and Parkview elementaries do not have PTAs. (Jackson elementary has a Parent Teacher Organization.)
l The district's five middle and three high schools have PTAs.
l Of the district's 30 PTAs, Guadalupe Batalla, a Northwest parent, is the only PTA president who belongs to an ethnic minority. (She is also the only non-English-speaking PTA president in the state.)