Minerva Vazquez, a participant in Navegadores Escolares, speaks with Ericka Sanchez, one of the program’s navigators. (DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA / STAFF)

By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
bartesaghi@montclairlocal.news

When she was in school in Florida, Zaida Camacho had to navigate her school system alone. Her mother, an immigrant from Guatemala, and her father, an immigrant from Cuba, didn’t speak English.

Camacho, now an adult with a family of her own, wished her parents were more involved with her school, but she understood her parents had to work long hours in order to provide for their family, and didn’t have time to get involved. 

“I know how difficult sometimes it can be for both the kid and the family,” Camacho said. “And the parents are doing everything they can in order to provide a better life for their kids.” 

So when Masiel Rodriquez-Vars, executive director of the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence, told her about a new MFEE program called Navegadores Escolares — meaning “School Navigators” — she knew she had to sign up. 

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“Why not help you and give back to my community?” Camacho told those gathered at Glenfield Park on Tuesday, July 27, as MFEE officially launched the program. Residents who speak Spanish — the titular “navegadores” — will help Spanish-speaking Latino immigrant families navigate Montclair’s school system and the township overall.

Thirteen families and nine navegadores came for the gathering, where they enjoyed empanadas, light refreshments, board games and coloring — a casual, social interaction as the program gets underway. 

About 20 families have signed up so far. But organizers hope to build a much larger community around the program.

The idea for the program, Rodriquez-Vars said, came in response to the increase of Latino immigrant families in town. In 2017, the Montclair school district served 31 students classified as English language learners, according to figures provided by the district to MFEE and shared with Montclair Local. At the end of the 2020-21 school year, there were 75 such students.

That also prompted another MFEE effort: to pair Montclair students with younger Latino peers who’ve recently arrived in the country — and who sometimes don’t speak English fluently, or who may not have the access to technology and resources their peers do — through the group’s PEEPs mentorship program. The two initiatives will continue in parallel. 

Rodriquez-Vars heard from one of the participants in another MFEE program that she wished that her parents were more involved at her school, and that they had opportunities to meet other parents. But a language barrier stood in the way, the participant had said. 

“That makes a big difference for a kid to feel like they’re a part of the fabric of the community,” Rodriquez-Vars said. “If you’re in school and none of your parents go to PTA meetings, they don’t participate in events or they don’t come to the shows, then you are in it by yourself.” 

Masiel Rodriquez-Vars, executive director of the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence, greets families at the first gathering for Navegadores Escolares — meaning “School Navigators” — at Glenfield Park on Tuesday, July 27. (DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA / STAFF)

The volunteer navegadores are mostly parents and other bilingual residents. They’ll help students by helping their families enroll students in schools, schedule parent-teacher meetings and otherwise access the resources available to them. They’ll also provide some translation services as needed. 

“We are looking for people who are empathetic and who are problem-solvers,” Rodriquez-Vars said. Navegadores should be “tenacious, comfortable with technology and have the time to commit,” she said.

Each of the navegadores will be matched with three families, spending about one to three hours each week with each family, either through in-person meetings, phone or text. They will also spend about 60 to 90 minutes each week on regular check-ins with other navegadores.

The exact hands-on support a navegador provides will be determined by each family’s unique needs.

“That’s just exactly what we need to be doing,” Rodriquez-Vars said. “How do you really connect and bring the family into the fabric of the school community so that the student really feels they’re part of it?” 

She said the gathering at Glenfield Park will be the first of several throughout the summer. 

“We want to build a hub where our families can come together,” she said in Spanish to the crowd during the gathering.

Through an icebreaker activity, families and navegadores learned about each other, talked about each other’s countries, learned where their kids go to school and exchanged phone numbers.

Maria Alvarez, an immigrant from Ecuador, is a member of one of the families taking part in the program. She met her navegador at the gathering. Both of them have kids who go to Northeast Elementary School; they planned a play date for their children to meet.

 “It is important for my children to know other kids that go to the school,” Alvarez said in Spanish. “It also helps us meet other Latino parents that are in the same school as my children to meet other Latino families in the area.” 

The program will also host workshops in Spanish on how to use school resources such as Genesis, the student information system that Montclair Public Schools use.