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Parents sharpen their nurturing skills at Oakland Baby Learning Communities

on March 14, 2011

Standing on a stage next to the Oakland mayor Jean Quan and a group of social service providers on Saturday, Martin Gutierrez had an important message to deliver. But the crowd in front of him didn’t contain city officials or reporters; it was full of parents with their very young children, seated in the Futures Elementary School auditorium. The event: a celebration of the East Oakland moms and dads graduating from a six-week program on parenting skills.

“I love you very much,” Gutierrez said in Spanish to his nephews, ages 6 and 8, who were sitting near the front. “I will always take care of you. I’m going to protect you from the dangers of the streets.”

Gutierrez, who has been taking care of his nephews for the past two years, is one of more than 40 parents and family members who completed the classes as part of a program called Oakland Baby Learning Communities. The classes, run by the city, county, and privately funded SafePassages program, teach parenting skills to immigrants and parents of children who have experienced domestic or community violence. The program is modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone, a service in New York City that teaches parents to improve their children’s language and reading skills and emphasizes “verbal discipline over corporal punishment,” according to the New York program’s website.

“It’s good to learn all your options for how to treat children when you’re under stress,” Gutierrez said.

Mahogany Dove, a 24-year-old mom who took the course, praised the program after the graduation ceremony. “I got to get other people’s point of view, not just opinions from people in my family,” Dove said. She added that the program helped “to teach adults how to be more mature in situations that might come up in the future.” And the program provided something even more basic for Dove: “A safe place to come and talk about our problems.”

Quan gave the commencement speech, lauding the parents for committing themselves to raising successful children. Citing her own Chinese-speaking, immigrant mother, she said, “If my mom could raise a future mayor, I know you can raise a future president.”

The graduating parents came from two classes—one in English and one in Spanish—that met for two hours on six Saturday mornings. Open to parents in the Havenscourt neighborhood, the program is still small compared to the classes offered by the Harlem Children’s Zone, which receives federal and private funding.

Quan said in an interview after the graduation ceremony that the Oakland program’s founders tried to get federal funding, but ultimately had to utilize a variety of local sources. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education awarded 21 cities “Promise Grants” to replicate the Harlem Children’s Zone program, but Oakland was not one of the recipients.

Oakland’s parenting workshops will take place again later this year in the Sobrante neighborhood. Quan had originally tried to pitch charitable foundations on the idea of a third series of classes in West Oakland, but did not receive funding.

In addition to the parenting classes, which focus on families with children ages five and under, Oakland Baby Learning Communities puts on a playgroup for parents with children under one year old. The focus is on bonding the parent with the child and screening for any early signs of developmental delays.

“It’s also to help parents understand how to play with their children,” said Alicia Perez, the public relations officer for SafePassages. Parents from both the playgroup and the classes receive ongoing case management intended to help identify further services.

Oakland Unified School District board director Chris Dobbins, who also spoke at the graduation, said Oakland Baby Learning Communities programs are a good way to get assistance for immigrant families who might not normally be comfortable approaching the government for services. Holding a program at a school facility where families already bring their children helps, Dobbins said. Many neighborhood parents bring their children daily to Futures Elementary or one of the three other schools that share the campus.

“The school [district] feels there’s not enough connection between the schools and the city,” Dobbins said. Programs like Oakland Baby Learning Communities make that connection, he added. “You can’t get enough of that.”

To learn more about Oakland Baby Learning Communities and other Early Childhood Initiative programs, interested family members can call SafePassages at (510) 267-8807 or visit

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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