Yoellie Iglesias is a self-proclaimed “helicopter mom.”
She decided a long time ago that if her son was going to succeed in one of the state’s lowest-achieving districts, she couldn’t leave it up to the teachers in his school.
When her son Angel was ahead in school, Iglesias asked his teachers to challenge him more. She pushed to have him put in higher level classes. When he fell behind, she met with his teachers to get him caught up. When he was sent home with no homework, she found out why.
In a state where the gap in achievement between Hispanic students and their white peers is among the largest in the country, Iglesias is on a mission to get more Latina mothers in Waterbury involved in their children’s education.
It all started seven years ago when she decided to host a conference to connect Latina mothers with programs that would help their children beat the odds. Despite a late fall nor’easter that hit the state a couple of days before the event, a room full of mothers showed up. Since then, Iglesias’s network of women – called Madre Latina – has grown.
The Mirror sat down with Iglesias to hear her story.
Were you surprised by how many mothers attended your first event?
“Even the mayor asked me, ‘Can you explain to me how you did this, because I don’t even understand how you have so many people.’ I told him this just shows we have such a big need, so people show up. After that conference, I said mission accomplished and I went on vacation. When I got back people started asking me when are we going to meet. I told them there were no plans for another meeting, but after some convincing, I decided to hold a meeting at the end of January on a Wednesday night and 40 mothers showed up – and since then it’s history.”
Can you describe the need that Latina mothers in your network face?
I reached my dream because I had a community to support me. We need a community right there to support them, too. We cannot do this alone.
This year – seven years later – my mothers’ lives are totally different. When we started we had mothers who do not speak English, do not work, on welfare – they do not know anything in the community. I used to wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning to put things on Facebook, I don’t even need to wake up that early now. I can wake up at 9 a.m. and everyone has already put useful information there.
It is sad for me because I am like a mother and it is sad when they leave, when they leave their nest. But this year we are growing and finding new mothers. That’s because my mothers, they have totally changed; some of them have gone to college; others have opened their own businesses. They know how to defend their children in the schools. They really don’t need me anymore; that group doesn’t depend on me. So now we are growing a new pool of women who need our help.
What kind of help?
I know how to get them connected with programs and services. The second largest community here is Latino, but they were not really connected to anything. So I said, ‘We need to change this.’ I also noticed that there were not Latinos in any of the groups at schools. I was one, and everyone else was white.
Why did you start this work?
I have only one child, Angel. He’s the love of my life. I really believe that for me to be able to keep Angel safe, the only way that I can do that is to build a stronger community. And every time that I help a family in anything that they need, I really believe that that family will also work to keep my child safe. That was my inspiration. People kind of protect him because of what I did for him. Each mother’s goal should be to build a community to protect their children.
I am going to tell you something funny. Last year I went to Puerto Rico for a trip and Angel stayed with my neice. I tell him, you know if you want to go to the mall with your girlfriend you can go, just tell me; and he went to the mall, but he didn’t tell me he was going to the mall. The next day I received a message in my inbox [from someone who saw] Angel in the mall with his girlfriend. I said, ‘Really? He didn’t tell me he was going to the mall.’ And then another person tells me they saw him there, and then another. So I say to him, ‘Angel why didn’t you tell me you were going to the mall?’ He asked ‘How do you know that?’ and I said, ‘Three text messages.’
That is my way to protect him. I protect him by building a stronger community.
What was his school experience like?
“Let me tell you, Angel went from pre-K to third grade in public school. I am a helicopter mom because that was my way to protect Angel.
Angel was very shy and very, very smart. When Angel went to school, Angel knew a lot. I am a teacher, and my background is I have a master’s in education. So I knew he was very smart. I even wrote him packages to the teacher for him to do in class because when students were doing one plus one Angel had already learned that.
That is my way to protect Angel, being active and proactive. I was always talking with the teacher, volunteering at the school, My husband and I went to every open house. That involvement really makes the difference. I know some parents say ‘I cannot be there 24 hours,’ but there are ways that you can have a constant presence.
Why did you decide to take him out of public school for a few years?
“I will tell you why. When Angel was in third grade, the teacher was out 16 days when she was pregnant. When the teacher wasn’t there, they put him in other rooms, typically fourth and fifth grade class, and I was always really worried and thinking if there is a fire or another emergency, that teacher is not going to think about Angel because he is not regularly part of her group. Also, having that big of an age difference, I don’t even know what a fifth grader might tell my baby boy.
So I decided to put him in private Catholic school. I think the Catholic school was very good. What they do is different. Angel, he had homework Monday through Sunday, two hours of homework every single night.”
So how did he end up back in Waterbury?
I changed him back in seventh grade. One of the reasons I changed him is because one day Angel tells me he was told by his teacher not to play in a very, very bad place. And so I asked him where that was and he told me the projects. And I said, well, your father came from the projects and your father is a good guy. There are good and bad people who live in a very rich place, too. So I don’t like or understand why his teacher was saying that.
The other reason why I took him out of that school was because he often heard that no matter what you do, if your parents pay tuition, everything will be okay. The message he was getting was if he did his homework or not, as long as your parents pay tuition, you will pass your classes. So I said, no, this is not what I want. I want him to learn that he needs to do his homework.
All these little messages made me realize that it was time for him to go back to the real world because that was a very small world. A lot of the mothers and fathers were well off and were white. I said this is not the real world.
What was the transition back to public school like?
He was almost two years ahead, so I got them to change him to upper classes, and Angel still almost never again brought home homework again in his life. He finishes everything before he gets home. He told me, ‘Mommy, what I learn here, I learned in fourth or fifth grade.’ That was a problem, but I knew that that was going to happen because in the Catholic school he was ahead. That is the difference that I noticed. I went to the teacher and said, ‘Why do we have a child who has no homework?’ She told me he has homework, but he is able to finish it before he gets home. He was in the upper classes, but I don’t know, the way that they teach is different.
How did your son learn to speak another language?
He speaks Spanish. It was very funny, because we went to Puerto Rico every year and his grandmother doesn’t speak English. So when he went to Puerto Rico he spoke to the kids in English and they answer him in Spanish. Because in Puerto Rico, English is the second language and a lot of kids speak a lot of English and they understand it. And when I speak to Angel’s father in Spanish, Angel understands everything. So when he was 10, we came back from Puerto Rico he tells me he is going to start speaking Spanish around home. So I say, ‘Okay, welcome.’
Did his school help him learn that other language?
I think for Angel, the Spanish classes that he took in high school were helpful for him. He loved his teachers… I think because he’s older he understands the benefits to speaking two languages. So now he understands that he can maybe get a job more quickly because he is able to speak with other people. I think sometimes he feels kind of important because of it.
So it sounds like he is a success story: He’s earned good grades. He decided to pick up another language on his own because he saw the benefits, and he is going to the University of Connecticut next year. Do you think your family’s story is typical among the mothers that you work with?
I think it’s not. I think that one of the biggest issues that we have and that I am always talking about is the despair and the disconnection between the Latina mothers and the school. It is not a secret we are always talking about this. I think those who grew up here, their experiences were not good, and so as parents now they don’t trust the system and are not able to really see the education system as something they can trust and ask for help.
I think the mothers who come from other countries, the expectation that the system will be like schools in their countries is wrong. So they crash all the time because of that.
How do you get them more involved?
I think that the schools are always talking about parent engagement, but if you look at the staff – how do I say this? – the staff… you don’t see enough Latinos, you don’t see parent liaisons who speak your language. You don’t see teachers who can understand you or understand what is going on with you or your family.
You don’t have enough bilingual counselors in this city, and I kind of recognize that the city and the schools are trying very hard, but it is what it is. I really believe that the city and department are trying to get the staff that is able to communicate with parents, but there is still a lot of work to do.
I know that they are trying to get more teachers who are bilingual. They are really trying. When there is an opening they come to us because we have a job bank and we post it everywhere, on Facebook. They know they can connect with a lot of Latinas through us.
What are some things you would like to see change?
Sometimes I am with all these people from boards, directors of boards, and they say to me ‘I want to have more Latinos.’ And I look at them and I say, ‘Are you actually looking, or is that just a thought in your mind. Cause it’s one thing in your mind to think you want more Latinos, it’s another to be out there looking and reaching out.’
What would you want the public to understand about the level of education for Latino students?
I really believe that parents need to be able to create change. I think parents still have the key. We need to stop believing that this system is going to work out for us if we don’t get involved.
I have a wonderful example. I grew up in Puerto Rico. I had wonderful teachers; those teachers put in me the desire to go to college. It no longer became a question in my mind. I think I noticed very early that that responsibility was not in the hands of the teachers here. So I need to be responsible for that. You need to take that idea that the system will make your child successful, no – you need to take responsibility and make sure that your child is successful. To do that you need to have a responsibility with the school and you need to let the school know you are a responsible parent.
When I go to open house, I give them my card and I tell them, ‘I am going to be your best friend, but if Angel falls behind without me knowing, I am going to be your worst enemy. Because if Angel needs anything – anything – you need to call me and I will do whatever to make sure he gets the tutors.’
Constantly I have communication with the school.
I will give you an example, Angel had a science teacher and he says to me ‘Oh mommy I don’t understand anything.’ So I met with the teacher and the teacher said, ‘What is the problem? Angel has a B in my class.’
So I think he has an expectation that he needs to have an A in every class, and when he can’t get there, maybe that’s why he is upset. After I went and talked with the teacher, everything changed, we got him some extra help. I don’t let time pass, two weeks, three weeks, four weeks. No. I sent an email to the teacher, to the counselor, to the principal and we all got on the same page. And Angel is getting the good grades.
That’s what I want parents to understand. You have to be in touch with the school if you want your child to be successful – nobody else. The teacher, she has 32 students. How is one person going to be able to help 32 students with problems alone?
Read more of The Mirror’s coverage of English learners here.
The Mirror’s exploration of ways to close persistent gaps in educational achievement is supported in part by a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network and the Nellie Mae Foundation. View more of the projects they have funded here. The Connecticut Mirror retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.