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Friday, April 23, 2004

Avoiding academic pitfalls

A lack of information has caused Woodland students to be placed in the wrong classes, stifling their educational development. It has also impeded the ability of some to attend college.

As part of a new program in Woodland, however, parents are learning how to avoid these academic pitfalls and become advocates for their children in the school system.

The Education Empowerment Project provides educational information for parents, students and teachers.

Although it focuses on improving academic achievement of students learning English as a second language and migrants, the program is tailored for anyone who wants to become more involved with the education of their children, according to the program's organizer, Attorney Rogelio Villagrana.

"(The program is about) increasing the number of students who have the choice to go to college," he said. "It's all about choice."

A central component of the project is the Family Education Forums. The informational meetings focus on a wide array of issues, including access to higher education, high school graduation requirements and the rights of parents and students.

But forum topics are really determined by what parents want to learn, he said.

Four educational forums were scheduled for this year, and Villagrana said he hopes to double that number for next year.

The project, which began in 2002, also provides legal services for families that qualify. As part of those services, Villagrana works with administrators, teachers, parents and students to make sure due process and administrative proceedings do not violate the law.

Some of those issues include gang profiling, expulsion rates, dropout rates and ensuring students are not wrongfully denied bilingual education waivers.

But the project is intended to teach parents how to solve their problems - not solve problems for them, Villagrana said.

"We never do something for someone that they can do themselves," he said. "It's about empowering."

So far at least 35 families have received legal services from the project. But that number will increase as more people become aware of the project, he said.

"Once people find out such a service is available, they start using it," Villagrana said.

The project serves children in grades K through 12. Initially, the project was intended to serve all of Yolo County. "But now we focus on Woodland because so many things are going on here," he said.

Villagrana said he also works with school committees and local nonprofit organizations involved with similar issues. In particular, English Learner Advisory Committees (at various school sites), the Sacramento Valley Organizing Community and the University of California at Davis - all of which have provided additional opportunities for the project to reach out into Yolo County communities.

The project began after Villagrana gathered research from the community to figure out what educational information people wanted to learn. In 2003 the project started and services became available, he said.

"The focus was initially on parents, but we realized teachers were lacking information," Villagrana said.

Informing everyone involved in a child's education about their rights is a necessary step to increasing academic achievement, Villagrana said.

The project was launched by the Legal Services of Northern California. Funding was provided by AT&T and Equal Justice Works. To find out about the educational forums or legal services provided contact Villagrana at 662-1065.

- Scott Den Herder can be reached at 406-6232 or

Parents go to school. Attorney Rogelio Villagrana helps parents learn about their rights in the public school system Wednesday during a Family Education Forum, held at Woodland High School. English and Spanish forums were offered. (Deo Ferrer/Democrat)