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Parents and educators participate in a ‘Building Cultural Awareness’ workshop recently held in the cafeteria at Monument Valley Regional Middle School as part of Berkshire Hills Regional School District’s Parent Mentor Forum series.

GREAT BARRINGTON

Now in its second year, the Parent Mentoring Program at Monument Valley Regional Middle School is looking to grow and expand to include other parents in the district.

The initiative was launched in May 2012, as a way to better engage parents with their child’s development and education by building networks for support and to promote safe and healthy environments for young people.

School adjustment counselor Dom Sacco leads special training programs for parent-to-parent mentors. The Parent Mentoring Program also includes a series of monthly community forums on relevant topics, as well as parent-to-parent training and outreach efforts.

"The community forums have been really great. They’re touching on topics that are spot on and important to parents," said Susan Higa, president of the Monument Valley PTA. "The only issue we’re having now is getting more parents involved."

This year, the forums have been offered to families of children at Monument Valley, as well as Muddy Brook Elementary and Monument Mountain Regional High schools.

The forums are organized collaboratively between parents, Berkshire Hills Regional School District, Community Health Programs (CHP), Multicultural BRIDGE (Berkshire Resources for Integration of Diverse Groups and Education), South Berkshire Community Coalition and Berkshire South Regional Community Center.

Each month, the same presentation is offered at a morning time and an evening time, in hopes of reaching as many parents as possible. Attendance numbers have range from eight people to 40 participants. A total of 140 individuals have participated in at least one session of the Parent Mentoring Program to date.

January’s theme was "Building Cultural Awareness" and was led by Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant and Eden-Renee Hayes, executive director and board vice president respectively, of Multicultural BRIDGE. The Tuesday evening program also included a special session with Elizabeth Frishkoff of the HANDLE Institute, giving parents and educators strategies for helping students reduce stress to be able to better learn and function.

The Thursday morning forum included a group of 14 parents and educators, representing each of the district’s three schools.

Suzanne Blackwell, a parent of a Monument Valley student, said her motivation to participate and also to become a trained parent mentor last year is simple: "I want to know what’s going on in my child’s life," she said.

"If my child comes home talking about something they’ve learned or how they’re doing things in school, I want to be able to understand and know the people who are teaching or are involved," Blackwell said.

During the "Building Cultural Awareness" session, the group sat in a circle and discussed perceptions and values in terms of diversity.

Hampton gave an overview of 16 dimensions of diversity, which range from age and ethnicity to geographical location and parental status.

"We want to work toward building a sense of shared culture in our schools," said Mary Berle, the district’s director of learning and teaching.

Based on its own student population, Berkshire Hills has seen a shift in its own culture. For example, during the 2006-07 school year, 91.7 percent of students were white, 13.8 percent of students were diagnosed with either physical or mental disabilities, and 15.8 percent were low-income.

Data from the 2012-13 school year indicated that 88.1 percent of students were white, 13.4 percent had a diagnosed disability and 26.7 percent of students were considered low-income.

Parent Diana Piepho, a parent of a recent high school graduate and a currently enrolled Monument Mountain student, said that as students’ needs change, "we as parents need to know what values are held in the district." She said that through the Parent Mentoring Program, she’s been able to get "tremendous, wonderful answers."