Walton serves hundreds of families and students who come from different countries, the majority of which speak Spanish. The school has stood out for outperforming the local district for 13 years, and its Latino students and English learners have demonstrated growth above the state average in both ELA and math for three consecutive years thanks in part to Student Family Liaisons Aida Colon and Merlyn Parra. That outreach earned Walton the title of a “Building the Hope” school that can provide strategies to be leveraged for educational recovery.
Merlyn Parra is in her first full year as a student/family liaison at Walton Charter Academy.
“We are part of why our parents are so satisfied with Walton and its communication,” Colon said. “They feel so comfortable coming over here and finding someone.”
Principal Mona Boersma said the staff understands the importance of strong relationships with students and families by learning about them as people, having high expectations for all students, and supporting students to achieve their goals. By sending all communications in English and Spanish, parental relationships are built through frequent phone calls, social media posts, and printed information about student’s academic progress and the good things happening at the school. For Hispanic families, Colon and Parra are their introduction into the Walton family.
Every Thursday, a parent group comes to Walton Charter Academy to support classrooms, and also has become a support group for each other.
While Colon has worked at Walton for 19 years and her two kids attended Walton, Parra joined the school in March after 14 years as a parent, with her sons starting in kindergarten. Colon, Parra, and the staff work to make Walton a place that families feel comfortable coming in to ask questions, support the progress of the children, and share concerns.
Every Thursday, a group of mostly Hispanic parents comes to the school to help teachers and staff, but also to support each other. The parent group celebrates birthdays, baby showers, and holidays while in the building supporting the needs of teachers and students.
Walton students and families celebrate Halloween.“I have grown so much as a person, as a human being because in this office, we pray, we cry, we hear parents , we talk, we bring communication, we provide services,” Colon said. “We never say no, we try to find something that can make the kids continue coming to school.”
For parents who don’t speak English, helping out at the school can be intimidating. But Colon and Parra erase any feelings of apprehension however they can. The school has brought in a consular to provide information about the resources for creating your own business, classes for self-esteem, or different topics to help volunteers feel welcome and comfortable.
Aida Colon has worked at Walton Charter Academy for 19 years.
“A lot of parents said, ‘Merlyn, how can I do that? I don't speak English. How can I go help at school?’” Parra said. “I will be there, we can speak Spanish and English, we can help each other. I can teach you how to make copies. This family is a Walton family.”
When Colon started at Walton, she was the lone person providing communication in Spanish and translating for parent-teacher conferences. Now, the office team knows phrases and words in Spanish to communicate with Hispanic families more easily. A majority of the team has had Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) training to provide staff with background on second language learning and strategies to implement to support language learners.
That inclusion creates an environment that keeps people coming back to the school, like Parra’s children, who saw her volunteering once or twice per week. Now, they volunteer as high schoolers or college students.
“Usually in your job, you look at the time to finish and go home. Here, you are home,” Parra said. “We don't notice the time because we love what we do.”
Keep up the excellent work, Ms. Colon and Ms. Parra!
Check out a school near you!
Walton Charter Academy is a tuition-free, public charter school in Pontiac, Michigan, serving students in Young 5s through eighth grade. It is part of the National Heritage Academies network, which includes 99 tuition-free, public charter schools serving more than 65,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade across nine states. For more information, visit nhaschools.com.
Visit Walton Charter Academy's blog to read more stories like this.