Lucia Sanchez, an instructor with Salem-Keizer Coalition for Equality's Preescolar Aprendiendo Avanzamos, greets students in the preschool program on Zoom on Thursday, April 8, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Lourdes Amaya describes herself as a “a very busy mom.”

But for the past few months, she’s set aside an hour and a half, twice a week, to sit with her young daughter, Fernanda, singing songs and making art with a dozen other parents and preschool kids on Zoom.

Amaya is one of about 60 parents participating in a new preschool program with the Salem-Keizer Coalition for Equality.

Coalition employees, most of whom are parents themselves, devised the program in response to the pandemic as more parents sought advice on preparing their younger children for school.

Unlike traditional preschool classes, where a parent may drop a child off for the day, the coalition’s program is taught in Spanish and is designed for parents and kids to do together.

“The program has helped me a lot to help him learn his letters,” mother Maria de Jesus Rios said of her son, Dylan. “Before, he didn’t like being with teachers.”

Teacher Lucia Sanchez said the goal is to teach parents how to teach.

“They’re the first teachers,” Sanchez said.

The coalition was founded more than 20 years ago by parents concerned about the lack of educational opportunities for Spanish-speaking and Latino students in the Salem-Keizer School District.

Their focus is educating Spanish-speaking parents about the school system, child development and language acquisition so they’re better equipped to help their children.

The coalition has long provided a program to build reading skills for kindergarten through second grade students and their parents. But they’ve never had a regular preschool offering.

Sanchez said after schools closed and more people began spending the day at home, the coalition got a flood of inquiries from parents who wanted ideas for keeping their younger kids engaged and getting them ready for school.

“They were saying, ‘What can I do with my kid?’” Sanchez said.

She and other instructors developed a curriculum focused on early reading, math and motor skills, with classes beginning in November.

Instructors said parents and students have been enthusiastic since. A white board in the empty classroom Sanchez teaches from is covered in photos of smiling kids and their parents working on art projects as part of the class. Parents send them in as a point of pride, Sanchez said.

When the coalition had to cancel classes during the power outages following February’s ice storm, one parent called the office to report her child burst into tears upon learning there would be no preschool.

A recent class had students draw a miniature city street and fashion a car mounted on a stick to drive across it as Sanchez engaged parents in a discussion about traffic safety. One class per week focuses more on practicing letters, another on arts and crafts.

Sanchez said the activities are designed to use simple, cheap materials like egg cartons and Cheerios. The coalition makes activity packets available for families so they don’t need to buy anything, and classes are free.

Yadira Juarez, the coalition’s program director, said some parents have found their classes a better fit than English-language preschool, which can be difficult for kids who have grown up speaking Spanish and leave their parents unable to engage them in work.

A grant has helped pay for the current preschool class, which will run through June. After that, Juarez said the coalition is seeking additional grants to continue the program and hopes to offer in-person options once more people are vaccinated against Covid.

Isabel Rivera Medina said class has helped her and her son Alexander be more creative.

“It’s helped us a lot as a family. It’s helped us mostly to have time together,” she said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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