When she thinks about the struggles her young daughters face as English-learners, Maria Munoz begins to cry.

What worries her most is that she won’t be able to help them as they grow older, especially as they move into higher grade levels.

Munoz is among many parents in the Napa Valley Unified School District whose English skills are extremely limited. These parents face numerous challenges in trying to stay involved in their children’s education. Many are unable to help with homework or participate in parent-teacher conferences. Some wish to have their voices heard but say they are shut out by school administrators.

Maria Araceli Fuentes came to the U.S. a year ago to be with her husband, who preceded her. Extremely low wages in Mexico drove the couple to seek better opportunities for their young family, she said.

What many people earn for one day of work in Mexico would be enough to only buy one meal at McDonald’s, said Fabiola Osorio, who has helped Fuentes at the Family Resource Center located at McPherson Elementary School. People making the minimum salary in Mexico receive the equivalent of $20 per week, Osorio said.

Fuentes said she and her husband would sometimes go without food because there was only enough money to feed their children.

Fuentes has one son enrolled in second grade at McPherson. This is only his second year in the U.S.

He tells his mom that he wants to join the Army, and Fuentes said she hopes he gains enough proficiency in English to pursue his dreams.

Fuentes cries when she thinks about the difficulties he has in school because his English is so limited.

To help her family, Fuentes said she is trying to learn English by using a language program on her cousin’s computer.

“It’s difficult, though, because she is older and not able to grasp things as easily as when she was younger,” translator Maria Fernandez said.

Currently, nearly half of all children in Napa County are the sons and daughters of immigrants. About 90 percent are U.S.-born, but nearly all of them come from Spanish-speaking households, statistics show.

Roughly a quarter of school children in Napa County are English-learners, and another quarter are former English-learners, having gained proficiency in English, according to a report by the Napa Valley Community Foundation.

A child’s perspective

Yatziry Galvan, a senior at Vintage High School, remembers being brought to the U.S. at 5 years old, and feeling scared when she was reunited with her parents. They had left Mexico when she was still a baby, so she didn’t believe they were her real mom and dad.

“My grandma was always my mom,” Yatziry said.

When Yatziry started kindergarten in Napa at Shearer Elementary, she didn’t speak any English.

Her father, Jorge Galvan, remembered feeling “nervous” on that first day of drop-off at Shearer. What helped him feel comfortable, he said, was the school’s high number of Latino students and numerous bilingual teachers.

When she transferred to Bel Aire Park in second grade, Yatziry said she noticed a “huge difference” because the majority of students were English-speakers.

“Those years were very hard for me,” she said.

In the beginning of the school year, Yatziry remembered being particularly excited one day because she got to wear a “really cute tank top” — a gift from her mother. Feeling confident, the 8-year-old Yatziry was ready to make friends and saw lunchtime as the perfect opportunity. As she sat on a bench to chat with other kids, an adult working as a lunch monitor approached her and began yelling in English.

“I didn’t understand what she was saying,” Yatziry said. “Apparently, we couldn’t wear tank tops to school.”

Yatziry still remembers the incident as “emotionally painful” and “embarrassing.” After telling this story, her father, Jorge, spoke to her in Spanish. Yatziry listened to him, and then said in English: “It was hard the first years at Bel Aire, but I’m thankful because they made me stronger.”

Depression — and then hope

Maria Munoz came to the U.S. from Mexico with the goal of keeping her family together. Her husband already had a stable job here, and he wanted his wife and children with him.

The move was not an easy decision for Munoz, who left almost all her relatives behind.

“She was very depressed because she left her family in Mexico,” translator Fernandez said.

Munoz said that as her depression grew, she stopped thinking about the future. Part of what helped her recover was knowing her children needed her help.

Munoz’s daughters are in first and fourth grades at McPherson. Her eldest initially struggled in school because no one would play with her at recess, Munoz said.

Munoz desperately wanted to talk to the teacher and find out what she was observing during playtime, but the language barrier made it practically impossible to have that conversation. Once she found a translator, Munoz worked with the teacher and came up with a plan to help her daughter socialize.

Recently, Munoz signed up for English classes offered through Napa Valley Adult Education. She said she hopes more parents like herself will sign up for the classes because it ultimately benefits their children.

Asked about her experience in class so far, Munoz replied in English: “Exciting.”

Parents find help

Fabiola Osorio said she understands the frustration of having to learn a new language as an adult. Between work and raising children, parents “have a million things to do,” Osorio said.

Osorio came to the U.S. five years ago with her son. She spoke no English. Now practically fluent, Osorio said she picked up her language skills by volunteering at her son’s school, watching cartoons with him, and reading his books when he was in kindergarten. Often, she kept a Spanish-English dictionary by her side. Much of her studying took place at night after putting her son to bed.

Osorio works full-time as the parent leadership coordinator at the Family Resource Center at the McPherson campus.

The Family Resource Center’s goal is to help parents become active community leaders and teach them how to be more engaged in their children’s education.

The center is one of many resources available to parents throughout Napa Valley. Other local organizations and programs include Puertas Abiertas, Cope Family Center, Aldea Children and Family Services and Siempre Adelante.

Siempre Adelante is a program exclusive to Napa High School. Spanish-speaking parents are invited to attend monthly meetings where they discuss various topics related to their children’s education. Some meetings include classroom tours or presentations from college representatives, as well as student presentations about homecoming week or SAT prep.

Wanting to be heard

Jorge Galvan says he wishes a program like Siempre Adelante existed at Vintage High School.

Principal Mike Pearson said the school has an English-Learner Advisory Committee, which provides a forum for Spanish-speaking parents to come together on behalf of students. According to Vintage’s website, the committee meets four times this school year, with the next meeting scheduled for Oct. 8.

Galvan said he has tried to hold more school meetings between Latino parents and administrators but has not received a warm welcome.

With his daughter, Yatziry, translating, Galvan said he has had “a lot of trouble” finding someone who will listen to the issues facing Latino parents. This has become only a recent problem, he said, since Vintage’s former assistant principal, Vicka Llamas, was transferred to Napa High.

“Last year, (Llamas) was a really big help,” Yatziry translated. “She would always listen to parents. ... Now we don’t have that help. (My dad) is really kind of upset about that.”

Galvan came to Napa nearly 20 years ago to work as a mechanic and to seek better opportunities for his young family. He left behind in Mexico his daughter, Yatziry — at the time, his only child — and described the separation as one of the worst experiences of his life.

“It wasn’t just emotionally painful leaving me behind, but physically painful, as well,” Yatziry translated.

Now as a senior in high school, Yatziry said she is inspired by her dad’s courage.

“A problem that’s happening is parents need to be a little more involved with their kids and telling them their stories,” she said. “My dad’s stories motivated me to do the very, very best I could.”

Galvan has three children enrolled in the Napa Valley Unified School District. His two youngest are in second and fourth grades at Bel Aire Park Magnet School.

Galvan said he chose to come to Napa after seeing it featured on a television show in Mexico. He thought it would be an “amazing place” to raise his family, Yatziry said.

“He wanted a better education for his children and a better future for his family,” she said. “Basically, it’s every American’s dream.”