Marty Ramirez

Marty Ramirez brings lessons in life skills to Lincoln Public Schools’ family literacy program.

Journal Star file photo

Not long before the last school bell of the year ushered in summer, a group of students listened intently in a Campbell Elementary School classroom.

They weren’t your typical students, and it wasn't your typical teacher.

But those students were attentive, sitting at the base of a steep learning curve following a man in a fishing hat named Marty Ramirez.

Ramirez -- three years into his retirement after 38 years of counseling college students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln health center -- talked about relationships. He talked about life’s stressors, the conscious versus the unconscious, the pitfalls of procrastination, the mundane and life-changing decisions of daily life.

“I think they call it life. Life happening,” he said. “Mental health really means how happy you are when you deal with life. We want everyone to have good mental health.”

Two interpreters listened, then took Ramirez’s definitions, his stories and his message and repeated them in Kurdish and Arabic.

The students listened. They smiled and they nodded. And when it was all over, a few of them sat down with Ramirez to ask their own questions.

The students -- all parents of Campbell’s English Language Learners -- come to the classroom five days a week to learn English, to learn about their children’s school and how better to help them, and to learn about living in a new country and a new culture.

They are among about 135 parents who participate in Lincoln Public Schools’ family literacy program, which began in 2009 when LPS received a Toyota Family Literacy grant that paid for programs at Everett, Elliott and West Lincoln elementary schools.

Today, the program has grown to include nine elementary schools and is paid for with a combination of public and private funds, said Monica Asher, who oversees the program. Although about 135 parents participate every day, Asher said it touches about 360 family members altogether, including siblings, spouses and others.

The family literacy program has four components: adult literacy to help families learn to speak and understand English; parenting education, which gives participants a basic understanding of school and parenting in this culture and connects them to resources; Parent and Child Together Time (PACT), where parents spend time learning alongside their children in the classroom; and preschool education for younger students.

One of the main goals, Asher said, is to build relationships with teachers and other school staff.

Language is a barrier, so having a strong relationship helps bridge that gap, Asher said.

The program is targeted to the families of more than 1,700 elementary-aged English Language Learners at LPS. All told, LPS serves more than 2,200 ELL students from 64 countries who speak 56 different languages.

“The main goal of family literacy is so they can learn to better support their children in school,” said Peggy Newquist, a family literacy specialist. “So we really try to focus around school culture, how school is done here, and also build on skills for the larger community.”

To that end, the specialists often invite speakers from the community. Lincoln police officers have talked about their jobs and relationships with citizens. The county’s cooperative extension service has given sessions on budgeting and grocery shopping. Those from emergency services educated parents on what to do in severe weather. A professor from Nebraska Wesleyan talked about the benefits of yoga.

And Ramirez talked about life and how to cope with it. If you ask him to put a label on his sessions, he’d say he’s teaching his students life skills.

Ramirez, who grew up with Everett Elementary principal Michelle Suarez in Scottsbluff, has had close ties to that elementary school, where more than 45 percent of its students are Latino.

He’d come to family literacy meetings mostly to be supportive, until last year, when he gave a presentation. He offered the sort of advice he’s spent his career giving, but to a population largely unfamiliar with the idea of counseling or therapy. But stress is everywhere for immigrant and refugee families, who have fled violence and war and are trying to navigate life in a culture they know nothing about.

“My whole point is to get them thinking,” Ramirez said, “because they’ve never heard it before. I’m not telling them what to do, but as you go through (life’s) stressors, you don’t need to go through blindly.”

He did one presentation at Everett last year and thought that was it. But they kept asking him back. Then one of the bilingual liaisons told Newquist that she should invite Ramirez to other schools.

This fall, he did 15 presentations.

“The good word has spread,” Suarez said.

Every year, the literacy specialists ask parents what topics they’d like to cover, and Ramirez always makes the list now.

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“They really like what he has to say,” Newquist said. “He has his own journey, and I think they can relate to that. He gives them something new to think about, that’s for sure.”

So many families are so busy just trying to survive that they don’t have time to think about their own needs, Suazrez said.

“We focus on children, we focus on serving others, and sometimes we don’t remember to focus on ourselves,” she said.

Ramirez, she said, respects their life stories. It’s a balancing act -- respecting their cultures, but introducing parents to the idea of talking about their relationships, focusing on their needs, finding ways to work through the daily stresses of life.

Learning how to problem-solve.

One thing Ramirez focuses on is their stories: helping them remember the great risks they’ve taken to get to where they are today, and realizing that talking to a spouse about the relationship, or to a teacher about their child is just another risk. And one they can take.

“That’s a risk,” he tells them, “but look at all the risks you’ve taken. Don’t be defined by fear or fear of consequences.”

He spends a lot of time on definitions, handing out lists of symptoms of stress. Headaches. Insomnia. Forgetfulness. Anxiety. Confusion. He asks interpreters to help translate.

“Don’t let fear, stress and anxiety define who you are, because they will,” he said.

Talk about it, he said, figure out what’s causing the stress and address it.

At the end of the session at Campbell, Ramirez sat down with parents and started a conversation.

“What’s your question?” he asked.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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