Transcription of the episode “Ethical outreach: a parent coordinator anchors immigrant families”

Amy H-L: [00:00:15] I’m Amy Halpern-Laff.

Jon M: [00:00:16] And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest is Herminia Saldana, known as  Ita, parent coordinator at  MS 328,a middle school in Washington Heights in Manhattan. Her comments today represent her own views, and she is  not speaking as a representative of the Department of Education. Welcome, Ita. 

Ita S: [00:00:36] Thank you.

Amy H-L: [00:00:39] Can you tell us about MS 328. Who are the students and families?

Ita S: [00:00:44] So MS 328 is a pretty small school in our community. We are considered the zone school for our area, and we service students from grade six to eight. And they range because of different reasons, they range from ages 11 to maybe 15.

Our families are predominantly from the Dominican Republic. And we do have some families from Yemen, but most of our families are families of color. We don’t have any white families in our school. And the prominent language in our school right now is Spanish.

Jon M: [00:01:27] And I think you’ve mentioned that 98% of the students are English Learners or had been English Learners at some point, is that right?

Ita S: [00:01:37] Yes, 98% of our students have either been English Language Learners or New Language Learners, English as a New Language Learner, or they have tested out of the ELL standards. So they have become “commanding” and then they get to move on. The nice thing about it is that we offer dual language. So even if a student tests out of ELL as a commanding student, the parent still has the option for them to continue in a dual language program so that they don’t lose their native language. And they can still continue to learn English as a new language.

Jon M: [00:02:21] What do you see as the most important aspects of your job? 

Ita S: [00:02:26] The most important aspect of my job would probably be helping our families. And that encompasses so many different things. I go anywhere from being the shoulder to cry on to being the advocate for special education services, to helping with finding resources outside of the school or say food pantries or food programs. Educational programs for parents, such as GED, ENL classes for parents, finding resources for parents to apply for SNAP or help their children apply for summer youth employment. So it kind of ranges through a lot of different things.

The position itself was created about 18, 19 years ago, when Mayor Bloomberg was our mayor in New York and they found the need for a liaison for the parents. They needed someone in the school building that would be a liaison for the parents, and that’s how the program started. And it, it just kind of grew and has sustained itself over the last two decades.

Amy H-L: [00:03:39] What are the job requirements for parent coordinator? 

Ita S: [00:03:43] So for educational purposes, as far as applying for the position, you have to have a high school diploma. You are not required to have college or any college credits. So I think that that goes to show for representation of some of our families, you know, you’re kind of on the same level. Or you’re in an understanding level with parents, your educational status isn’t so far above them in some cases that you can’t relate, but you kind of know the system and you know how to help them maneuver the system.

As far as what kind of a person does it take to be a parent coordinator, I think it takes a person who has the skills to multitask. You have to be able to do 50 things at one time and you have to be able to kind of remember what’s going on and remember all these families and all their situations. You know, also it takes somebody who has empathy and who can listen and help and empathize with the family. And that is going to go outside the box to try to find a solution. You know, sometimes the solutions aren’t inside the box, you gotta find a different way. The same way we find different ways to educate our students, we have to find different ways of helping our families.

Jon M: [00:05:09] Once people are hired, what kind of professional training and support do parent coordinators get?

Ita S: [00:05:15] So we attend weekly workshops with the family liaison from our district. And they bring in different people to tell us about programs in the community, programs within the DOE that can help benefit our families. We take extensive PDs on different subjects. They’re always sending us for a PD about students living in temporary housing, how trauma affects a student. We work with the College Access For All, so help bring college awareness to the seventh grade, starting in the seventh grade. So any aspect of the Department of Education that impacts a parent, we get training on. So that even includes right now, say during COVID, with the students are doing remote learning, we’re taking a lot of the same trainings as the teachers are, to understand the different platforms. Because we’re the ones that are going to explain it to the parent. I’m going to be the one to teach the parents how to go into a Google Classroom and see if their child is doing the work.

Jon M: [00:06:24] Is there a career ladder for parent coordinators?

Ita S: [00:06:27] No, there is not. You’re a parent coordinator, unless you decide to go for family liaison, but that position is one per district. So if, let’s say, every parent coordinator in the district tried for that job, that would be 45 applications to one job.

Amy H-L: [00:06:44] What are some examples of the issues faced by families newly arrived to the country?

Ita S: [00:06:51] Well, a lot of the issues that some of our families face are depending on what country they come from. I had families that come from Venezuela. Because of the ongoing issues with their government in Venezuela, where they left, and they had no documentation. So they didn’t have their child’s birth certificates anymore, or they didn’t have immunization records. They didn’t have any grades because they left right away. And we weren’t able to get those records from Venezuela. So we would have to, in some cases, the students would have to restart immunization. Or we would figure out through different techniques that the clinic had if they had had immunizations. And just getting them proper medical care. And we’re lucky that in our building, we have the New York Presbyterian clinic, so they are able to get free physicals and immunizations here in the school. Pre-COVID, we had our dental office, so they were able to get free dental. And anything that was offered through New York Presbyterian, because they were part of our school, they were able to go to New York Presbyterian and get those services as well. 

Sometimes we have the problem that families come from other countries and they’re doubling up with other families, there’s a lot of family members in one apartment. But we try to help them get social services or help them with job trainings and different job opportunities so that they can get on their feet as a family on their own. We’ve helped families with navigating the language and how things will benefit them and their family because they come here and they don’t know any English. So they’re just, it’s kind of like a whole new world.

We’ve partnered up with the correctional facility that’s located next door to us, the Edgecombe Correctional Facility. The superintendent there, Mr. Miller, has helped create programs with us where at the beginning of the school year, they donate school supplies, backpacks with school supplies, for our students that don’t have any.

And they also once a year donate 25 to 30 turkeys for Thanksgiving so that we can donate those to families in need. But the backpack program really helps us when they first come in, because sometimes the parents tell us “We don’t have money” to get the supplies that they need. So I’m able to give them a backpack with all of their supplies through our health education program.

We also partner with New Balance. And every year we get some sneakers that are donated to the school through New Balance. So I have sneakers in my closet for kids that come in that may not have shoes and may not be able to come, you know, to have a proper pair of sneakers so that they can participate in gym or just feel like a typical kid, we give them sneakers.

Amy H-L: [00:10:01] There’s sometimes tension between immigrant parents and their children, who are growing up here. What are some of these that you see and how can you help?

Ita S: [00:10:12] So some of the different things, it’s the cultural aspect of the differences with the parents and the children as [inaudible] from being in their home country to being here. Discipline is one of them. How you discipline your child in other countries may not necessarily be the same way as you can discipline your child in the United States, and children pick up on that very quickly. So they say, “Oh, you can’t hit me here,” or “you can’t punish me.” “You can’t take away my phone because it’s mine.” So there’s a lot of different things that parents will say that they feel like, “Oh, I can’t even yell at my kid because somebody’s gonna report me and then I’m going to have ACS in my house.” So we, we help navigate those systems for the parent. We help them with parent workshops on how to navigate that system. And we also explain to them that sometimes ACS is not necessarily a punishment. ACS also has services in place. That can help families that are struggling.

Jon M: [00:11:13] Sorry. For listeners who are outside of New York City, ACS is the Agency for Children’s Services. [Ita: Yes], Go ahead. Sorry. 

Ita S: [00:11:21] They do have things that they can help families with as well, you know, as to cover things of neglect, but they can also help parents get on their feet. They can help them with getting applications for SNAP, which is the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program here in New York to help families with food. They can help them with childcare, how to get into a daycare program. So we try to explain to the parents that it’s not always a negative. It’s resources that we can use to improve their life. 

It goes back to some of the tensions that we see students who are growing up or have been here for several years and their immigrant parents who grew up in other countries. So some of the tension also falls into that. The student is learning a new language and now there’s this new language in the home that the parent doesn’t understand. So if the child is telling off their parent or cursing at their parents or being disrespectful, the parent may not know it. The parent also can’t assess what their child is talking about with another person on the phone. So if you’re your child making plans to do something that you may not feel is appropriate, you really can’t intervene because you don’t know that it’s not appropriate because you don’t understand the language. So that causes tensions for families.

It also causes tension for families because kids start to, I mean, kids develop and kids start to change. In itself, you know, middle school is a very difficult age bracket. You’re not a baby because your parents aren’t walking you to school every day as in elementary school. You’re not in high school yet, so you’re not really making life decisions that are going to affect you later on  such as applying for colleges or starting to work. So you’re in that middle phase and a lot of kids start to challenge. How do they dress? What do they eat? Some of them don’t want to eat the food that’s home anymore. They want American food. They don’t want to follow the rules that their parents have, be it, their own home rules or  maybe religious rules.

We do have a lot of students from Yemen that follow Allah, and so it’s changing. You know, parents are like, what are they doing? It’s difficult for a lot of our Arabic students. Like next week we start Ramadan. So then they’re in the school building. They don’t want to sit in the classroom while students are eating lunch, so we have to find ways of accommodating to change so that they’re comfortable. A lot of these little things that we may not see as a big deal, but for an 11 and a 12 year old, it is a big deal. And then they go home and they’re angry and they take it out on the parent. “Why did you bring me here? Why can’t I go home?”

I have a student in particular that, he grew up in the Dominican Republic, and he is finding it very difficult to be in the United States. He doesn’t want to be here. He wants to go back to the Dominican Republic with his dad, because he says that the students here, they worry about silly things. They worry about their cell phone or their clothes where he’s thinking on like these big global levels. And they don’t understand him because they’re like, “You’re 13, dude. Like, relax.” But he has a different way of thinking. And to him, he associates that with being American and he purposely tries to not learn English because he doesn’t want to stay. He figures. If I only learned Spanish, if I only speak Spanish, then they’ll send me back to the Dominican Republic. Some of these issues do obviously impact on the school, such as, for example, the issue of students eating or not eating during Ramadan or a student who decides I won’t  learn the language, and that way they’ll have to send me back home.

Jon M: [00:15:29] Some of the other issues aren’t strictly school issues, you know, some of the things that you’re describing. So how do you find yourself involved in helping to resolve these issues? What are some of the things that you end up doing?

Ita S: [00:15:43] So a lot of the things that I end up doing is  I try to keep the parents as involved as much as the parents able to. The one good thing I will say about this COVID pandemic that we’re going through is that it has, to a certain degree, increased parent participation because it’s become easier to say to a parent, “We need to meet. Can you jump onto a zoom meeting and let’s talk, because I know you’re at work, so let’s talk during a zoom meeting and then we can link in your child and yourself, and as many teachers as we can at one time.” Whereas, before, if you called the parent, it was usually, ” I need you to come into school so that we could have a conference.” And that was really hard for some families because they work. And a lot of my moms are home care attendants. So if they don’t go to work, their patient doesn’t have someone to care for them that day. So they feel like it’s very difficult to leave the job. So it helps them to come in to a zoom meeting and talk to us about what’s going on.

But with all of the tensions, we try to keep all of the parents in the loop. We try to keep talking to them and having them understand what’s going on. We ask the parents, what can we do to help them? We don’t want the parents to ever feel like we’re the authority figure, and this is how you have to do it. And this is how you need to raise your child. And you don’t have a say anymore because you’re in a new country. You know, your child is the boss, and we’re going to dictate to you how to raise your child. We don’t do that. I don’t do that. I try to establish to the child that your mom is still in charge. Okay. So how do we find a medium ground for you to work together and for us to work with both of you? So that’s how we try to handle it. I think we’ve had a lot of success. I’ve had parents come back with that their student that their child was rebellious or was difficult while they were in middle school. And they’ll come back and they’ll tell me, ” oh, they’re doing so well in high school, they really got it.” Or the kids will come back and say they miss middle school. “It was so much easier. Oh my gosh, you told us that it was going to be harder in high school, but we didn’t believe you, but it’s so different” and try to get them to see that.

Amy H-L: [00:18:16] Just to clarify, when you say we, you were working with other parent coordinators in the other schools, correct?

Ita S: [00:18:24] When I talk about the trainings and anything that has to do with the family liaison, the we that I’m referring is the parent coordinators in the district. When I’m talking about specific students and experiences that we’ve had here, I’m talking about our school community. So that would be our administration, our teachers, and our staff, because we only have one parent coordinator per school. So sometimes you’re lucky in the sense that you may be co-located in a building with another school. So there may be two parent coordinators in the building because each school has a parent coordinator. So you work closely with that parent coordinator.

 I’ve also had the privilege of working closely with parent coordinators, that we get a large number of students from their school, from elementary school. So you kind of build up a relationship with them because you’ve gotten a lot of their kids. And sometimes when you get their sixth graders, there’s sometimes still family members that are attending the elementary school. So if I can get in touch with a parent, I’ll reach out to the PC from the elementary school, and they get in touch with the parent. And then we have like a joint meeting to say, well, if it’s affecting my middle schooler, it’s probably affecting the elementary schooler. Let’s all work together and see how we can help this family.

Jon M: [00:19:52] In a low-income American community like Washington Heights, there’s inherently a power imbalance between the school as an institution and the families. What are some examples of how you can help make the relationship more balanced?

Ita S: [00:20:08] I think that with the power struggles, as far as the low income families that are in the Washington Heights, is that a lot of us that work in this building, particularly, grew up in the neighborhood. So we know the dynamics of the neighborhood. We know what it takes to live in Washington Heights. I mean, I have teachers in the building that were students of this school and they came back to teach in our school. I had teachers that had worked at the high school and now they work at the middle school here. So we kind of piece together all of the community. They can relate to us because we know exactly the community that they’re coming from. The struggle that we see a lot of is because we’re near Columbia Presbyterian or New York Presbyterian, as it’s called, the developing in the Washington Heights has changed so much that a lot of our families can’t afford to live here as much as they used to. And you have a lot of families that rent rooms from other tenants where they may not necessarily be related to those people. So you have an entire family living in a one bedroom in the one bedroom, not in a one bedroom apartment, but in the one bedroom. And that’s difficult. That’s difficult for families. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of programs out there to help them get apartment situations. But there are programs that I can help to send them to, free trainings so that they may be able to improve their job situation. So we try to make it so that the school is not just the school building, that the school is more than just the school building, that we are invested in our families and that we are helping our families.

So we’ve partnered with ACDP Beacon and they, we, have an after school in the building, so that after school we keep the building open till 10 o’clock every day. And it keeps the building open from, I believe, eight to six on weekends. So the kids have someplace to go. There’s basketball programs. There’s archery, there’s soccer, there’s baseball. We offer programs for adults, as well as the students, we offer Zumba. We offer ENL classes, GED classes. There’s an adult theater program that runs in our building. Dance programs. So we help the parents come in and take these programs and we offer programs for the students. The parent doesn’t have to worry about childcare because the student is in their program. The parent is in their program. And the family is building up something more.

Amy H-L: [00:23:06] What ensures the programs are culturally responsive? The New York Education Framework now provides for cultural responsiveness and sustaining. So aside from just bringing in parents and teaching them, how do we make sure that the school is also supporting and  sustaining the family’s cultures?

Ita S: [00:23:31] Most of our programs are done in English and in Spanish. So I have parents come in and they want to learn Zumba. We’re doing it in English and in Spanish. If we’re doing workshops for the parents, we’re doing it in English and Spanish.

We have a cooking program for the students after school, where we teach them how to cook from all different countries, whatever recipes we can find that teach them how to make different meals from any different country where those are going to be items that they’ve seen before, or that their parents are purchasing, right, because we don’t want to teach them how to make things that are going to cause more tension at home. We don’t want to say, “Oh, you’re going to create this seven course meal.” And the parents , “I can’t afford all of these ingredients.” With cooking, we teach them about the different seasonings that they may see at home, that may not be seen in a supermarket, that parents are making, because this is something they grew up with. Case in point, I am from Puerto Rico and a lot of my students are from the Dominican Republic, but we use sofrito, which is, it’s kind of a mush, but it’s cilantro is at first onions, garlic, and just a lot of different herbs, and you mix it in a blender, but you add that to meat when you’re cooking. And that’s what gives it a lot of flavor. So we use that in cooking club. So now the next step that we’re going to do is we’re going to teach them how to make it from scratch. And then on the corner of our building, there’s a community refrigerator, which is the new thing that’s been out there. There’s a community refrigerator. We’re going to create sofrito. We’re going to make it. And then we’re going to distribute it to our community. So that the families can see that the school is making this, but we’re also giving back to our families and we’re also giving back to our community. And then we’re talking about different, other programs and we can give back to the community within the school program to bring it back out to the community and give more to our families.

Jon M: [00:25:46] Wow. I want to go back for just a moment to when you were talking about families being doubled up in apartments. How does the school, and how do you as parent coordinator in coordination maybe with the principal, um, how does the school take into account when students are having, unfortunately, that’s not necessarily extraordinary, but when students are having major impacts  on their lives from outside the school, whether it’s that they’re homeless, whether there have been illnesses or deaths in the family say from COVID? So how does the school try to support students in these situations as far as, for example, academics are concerned?

Ita S: [00:26:32] So as far as academics are concerned, we try to support our families by looking at those components that are making up the home, be it the doubled up situation, or possibly domestic violence or students living in shelters. We look at all of those things and we factor them into how are we grading our students. Because if you don’t have access to a computer and we’re in remote learning and they shut down the school building, well, then how do I expect you to do the work? If you don’t have internet service or you have spotty internet service, how do I help you succeed? It kind of goes into what I said before about special education. Every child learns differently. So we need to learn how to teach that child. Well, every situation now is different and we need to figure out how to make that situation successful for that student. It goes back to being in communication with the family. It goes back to being in communication with what is going on. What do you need? When we closed down for COVID last March, one of the first things that we did was make wellness calls to families. And we started to kind of poll what are the needs of our school? What are the needs of our community? So we started with do you have a computer at home? Okay. If you don’t have a computer, do you have wifi service? So then if they did have wifi service, the school was issuing computers, laptops to those students. But what if you don’t have wifi? Then the Department of Education was issuing iPads that came internet ready. So we help the parents with those applications and making sure that the student received the device.

Once they received the device, do they know how to use the device? Do you know how to update a device? Because it’s not just handing them a device and saying, “Okay, you’re on your own.” There’s so many different things that weren’t working in the beginning. Were the logins working? Were the students able to access their, their classrooms, that they understand how to even submit the work once they completed it?

So we did daily wellness calls to all of our families, and we asked what’s going on? How are you? Do you need anything? Is anyone feeling sick? Do you have access to medical care? Do you have access to food? It kind of automatically took us outside of the, “Hey, does your kid have a pen and pencil to do his work?” 

Jon M: [00:29:26] And then you were able to provide resources or to try to connect people with resources to answer some of these? 

Ita S: [00:29:33] Yes. So when it came to devices, either the school or the Department of Education, we were able to get everyone a device. So right now a hundred percent of my students have a working device.

Amy H-L: [00:29:46] Now, these are wonderful. It’s wonderful that you’re able to do this. This is pretty non-controversial. I think everyone, certainly all of our listeners, would agree that students deserve to have access to what they need, the tools they need for learning. What are the, some of the harder ethical questions that you have to deal with?

Ita S: [00:30:07] Some of the harder questions is domestic violence situations. We’ve had kids in shelters that don’t feel comfortable, that are embarrassed. We’ve had kids that have been bounced around into foster homes. So they’re pulled out of one home one day and put into another home the next. So they still stay within our school. So we kind of become their safe haven. We’re the one consistent thing. So a lot of the things that I find that is really hard is that getting those kids to not shut down, because everything keeps changing and they don’t know how to express it. So they just shut down or they become so angry and then they lash out and they don’t really understand why they’re lashing out.

So those are the things that became difficult. How do you help a family in this situation? I’m not a social worker. I can’t pick them all up and take them home, which my son told me I need to stop picking up strays. He calls all my kids strays because I keep trying to bring them all home with me. So you have to find a balance and I’m grateful that I have a lot of resources. I have people that if I don’t have the solution, they have the solutions or they know somebody who can help. So I think that in order to provide for every family that needs, you have to think it’s not just me. You have to not take all of it on just yourself and recognize that you have a community that can help you. You want to help somebody else, it doesn’t mean that you have to do every single thing. There’s a community behind you to help you provide more for those families.

Jon M: [00:32:10] So, as you’re talking about this and the sort of the tremendous needs that people have, that you’re responding to, if you look systemically, um, cause as you mentioned, you know, you’re in a a small school, which makes it easy. What do you think that the Department of Ed or the City could do to further support parent coordinators, citywide, or to sort of make the job of parent coordinators easier, more effective, especially for example, in schools that are much larger? As Amy was asking about before, is there anything that if you were talking to the Chancellor that you’d say, “These would be things that would be useful to have happen?”

Ita S: [00:32:53] I think that once you start looking at schools that are much, much bigger, I think that they should consider the possibility of having more than one  parent coordinator. Because the parent coordinator takes on a lot of different jobs. We are in the position where we do everything that they ask us to do and maybe helping parents and one day we making copies for something depending on, you know, someone needs that help. Or if you need to help out with lunch duty or if you need to help out with bussing or if you need that, it’s just so many different things. We learned parts of the secretarial jobs. So I think that when the schools, when the numbers of students become bigger and bigger, then you kind of need a little bit more help.

You know, like you, you hear these stories over and over again about the Agency for Children’s Services, where parents and families fall through the cracks because they have so many cases. Then you realize that a hundred, and even for me, 135 families is a lot of families, you know, especially when they’re in need. You have communities and you have districts that could possibly have 800 students and still only need one parent coordinator because the, the economic is different in that community. The family support is different in that community. These that, you know, the family dynamics are different. It might be two family households and two income households. So it’s completely different, but then a lot of them, those communities have more resources and more funding to begin with. So those families get more.

I think that’s where we find the imbalance is that not all the school districts get the same. Our families are ultimately the ones that pay for it. Our students will ultimately be the ones that pay for it.

Jon M: [00:35:02] Thank you. Hermenia Saldana,  parent coordinator at MS 328 in Manhattan. Thank you very much.

Ita S: [00:35:08] Thank you. 

Amy H-L: [00:35:09] And thank you listeners. If you enjoyed the podcast, please share it with a friend or colleague. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and give us a rating or review. This helps others to find the show. Check out our website,, for more episodes and articles, and to subscribe to our monthly emails.

We post annotated transcripts of our interviews to make them easy to use in workshops or classes. We work with consultants to offer customized SEL programs, with a focus on ethics, for schools and youth programs in the New York City and San Francisco Bay areas. Contact us at We’re on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter @ethicalschools. OurĀ  social media manager and editor is Amanda Denti. Until next week.

Click here to listen to this full episode.