Alexandria, VA – “The will to become friends has always been there,” parent liaison Rosa Landeros said of the English and Spanish speaking families of Mount Vernon Community School. But finding a way to genuinely bring these communities together has proven challenging over the years.
The differences in language, culture, social opportunities and schedules has often meant families simply did not know where to start — and felt overwhelmed by the prospect of reaching out to one another.
But now a program that has been in the pipeline for years has blossomed and the results are tangible.
Neighbors to Friends, which began as a pilot last year, brings together Spanish and English speaking families to talk, support and learn from one another.
“I feel very fortunate to be in a community that has such open arms on both sides,” said Landeros, who has taken on the role of matchmaker between the parents.
“For a long time, it was almost like we had two separate schools here under one roof. It has been a dream of mine to bring our parents together in a meaningful way.”
“We have a very unique and special community here, very welcoming and inclusive. They just needed the tools to communicate — and that’s where I can help.”
Every Tuesday morning a group of thirty or so mothers of past and present students meet in the elementary school’s cafeteria.
Parents pair off with a partner of the other language and with the help of prompt cards and subject areas, conversations begin which often don’t end at the culmination of the gathering. In the room, there is laughter, embraces and the collective care of toddlers in evidence.
Most important, the group’s existence sends a message: everybody is equally welcome and valued at this school.
Friendships have developed naturally with cell phone numbers swapped, social media profiles followed and play dates between their children arranged.
For the Hispanic families, it is also an opportunity to learn about U.S. culture and traditions, to get advice on how to navigate and support their children through the educational system, and to practice their English. For the English speaking families it is an opportunity to learn about the richness of the Hispanic culture and the vibrancy that brings so much character to their Del Ray neighborhood, and a chance to acquire or improve Spanish skills.
In the week before the Christmas break, the women met to exchange gifts. At Thanksgiving, they brought dishes to share.
Each Thursday, a two-hour English class, led by parent Megan Reing, is held at Casa Chirilagua, a community center in a predominantly Latino area, a mile north of the school.
“We strive for connection over acquisition,” explained Reing who has three children at Mount Vernon and works part time as an English Language teacher at a Fairfax County elementary school.
“I would really love everyone to see what dedication and incredible perseverance these women have,” she said of her students.
“So many of them come on their only day off all week, or bring their children, or leave class and proceed to go to work for the next 10 hours. It’s really amazing and I feel privileged to see the way they support each other.”
“But I think the real gem with Neighbors to Friends is the connections that people are making across cultural groups.”
“The desire is there to become a true community school — not just in name but in action.”
To complement the work of Neighbors to Friends, the PTA has established Spanish classes and this summer, language-exchange play dates at local playgrounds were arranged to encourage and strengthen integration.
For Virginia Hernandez, who came from Honduras in 1993, the group has become part of her life. Her three children have all been educated at Mount Vernon, the only full dual language school within ACPS which has a student population that is more than 50% Hispanic.
“To start with, we had a small group but it has grown and I feel the community here is more united than ever.”
“I appreciate the willingness of everyone and I always feel welcome here. Initiatives like this help the Hispanic community feel less separated. We can say ‘hello’ to other parents without feeling lesser than anyone else.”
That was not always the case, she said, explaining that in years past her community had felt isolated and unsure how to navigate school, and how to advocate for their children.
Landeros knows only too well how the friendship of a stranger can transform a life.
Twenty-five years ago she arrived in Alexandria from Mexico in the dead of winter, mother to an infant and a young child.
Each day she walked in freezing temperatures up a hill to drop off her eldest child at school. They were all woefully prepared for the bitter cold. One day a passing car pulled over and a smiling woman handed over her phone number written on a piece of paper. Landeros, who at the time spoke no English, gave the note to her brother who called the number. The woman explained that she had seen her struggle each day and wanted to offer them a ride. The two women remained friends for many years.
It is the potential for this kind of connection that drives Landeros, a 20-year veteran of the ACPS school.
“We are the example to our kids, she said. “Often a smile is all it takes to break down barriers and begin a friendship. At the end of the day, we have far more similarities than differences.”