355,600 minutes: how do you measure a school year?

A peek into the life of a Parent Mentor: Meet Esther

When Esther Cortes saw a flyer to become a Parent Mentor at her kids’ school, she didn’t know that just weeks later she’d be standing in the freezing cold chanting “shut it down!” in opposition to a proposed charter school⁠— but she’s glad she did. 

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Rewind to December 2018, when Esther, a mother of two Northwest Middle School students, joined the Northwest Side Housing Center’s Parent Mentor Program. She had an interesting start to her role, “At first, the students thought I was a high school student volunteer and it felt like I was back in middle school,” Esther shared with a laugh. “But I started greeting the kids, building relationships, and they started building trust with me.”  

Over time, she got more comfortable in her dynamic role. In addition to helping with office paperwork and overseeing the computer lab, Esther shared, “I was working with small groups in a math class. It was challenging at first, the teacher was young and new, and a lot of the students didn’t respect her. I really related to her as a young mom myself.” 

Like all of our Parent Mentors, Esther’s presence in the classroom made a huge difference. “It was an interesting experience refreshing my Algebra skills along with the students and helping them. One boy in particular who was quieter and shy, got really attached to me. When I met him he was cutting class and I suspected he didn’t feel supported at home. Kids like him became my priority, I wanted to be like a friend or a mom to them if that’s what they needed.”

Esther worked hard with him, “I’d encourage him, reassure how smart he was, and he was appreciative that we could slow down together to work on his math when the lessons were going too fast for him. At the end of the year he was so proud to tell me about his grades and that he was graduating to high school.”

Students aren’t the only ones transformed by the program. “Coming home from school at the end of the day, I’d feel so happy. As a mom, I didn’t launch into a career but this program boosted my self-confidence and showed me I could actually accomplish something, and I could be a better person. From being home and cooking and doing nothing to having the responsibility of kids who you can help. I learned a lot about myself, and that it’s never too late to get involved. Now I’m thinking maybe I can be a substitute or a full-time teacher, and do more.”

Esther continued, “This feeling is something I share with many moms. This program is good for your self-esteem, it’s good for teachers, students, and parents— we’re all a team.”

All told, the NWSHC deployed over 50 parents, mainly Latina mothers, across five neighborhood schools during the 2018-19 school year, serving over 1,400 students with over 5,928 hours (354,000 minutes!) of mentorship, tutoring, and in-class support. And nearly all of the parents in the program have jumpstarted more involvement in their Local School Councils, Park Advisory Councils, and in community organizing campaigns. One such campaign was to block a new charter school, Moving Everest II, from coming to Belmont Cragin. And Esther was on the frontlines.

“I took this campaign very personal and very serious. I didn’t want funding to be affected for our public schools.” In addition to an action in front of the Moving Everest I school, “We flooded the Illinois Charter School Board Commissioners’ office with phone calls, emails, and came to their Board meeting” It was at that board meeting that the new charter school proposal was denied.

“My son plays soccer,” Esther said, “and I can see his excitement when he wins or scores a goal, and for me, that’s what the Moving Everest campaign was. It was a victory for me.”

Story by Laura Slabaugh
Published August 8, 2019

Laura Slabaugh