So much of the success of English Learners is credited to teachers. And rightly so–ELD teachers are historic champions of culturally and linguistically diverse students, and content teachers are steadily joining their ranks as they are empowered to help this population succeed. But uplifting, inclusive attitudes toward ELs begins with school leaders, in large part because leaders interact with whole families, not just students. Teachers work hard to make students and parents feel welcome at their classroom doors, but administrators must set the tone at the school gates.
Research is exceedingly clear that the top factor for student success is home-school partnerships. This might be called parental involvement, family engagement, or parent outreach at your district, but it all boils down to the same thing: The relationships between families and schools.
Since EL families often lack the cultural and bureaucratical expertise to initiate home-school partnerships, it is up to schools to foster these relationships. A bulletin from the WIDA Consortium says that successful home-school partnerships have four key qualities:
- They are focused on student learning and achievement.
- They are built on trust and respect.
- They are mutual, in that two-way communication meets the needs of all parties.
- They are ongoing, spanning all of a student’s educational experience.
Even though these statements seem boiler-plate and universal, there is a large margin for error among schools. Below are some guiding principles for establishing home-school partnerships that flourish and take on a life of their own at your school. Much of this information has been adapted from Colorin Colorado’s Guide for Engaging ELL Families: 20 Strategies for School Leaders.
A Word on Student Learning and Achievement
Native language skills are absolutely critical for the acquisition of English, strong literacy and testing skills, and bilingualism. Understanding and advocating for the utter necessity of native language development is crucial for school leaders, because this attitude has a trickle-down effect on how school staff perceive EL students, how EL families perceive their role in education, and how students perceive their identity and their value to society. Look for professional development on the role of the native language in your district for yourself and your staff to get everyone on board.
How School Leaders Can Build Trust and Respect Among EL Families
A key point here is getting to know your demographics. What countries are represented, and what languages, or language varieties do your families speak? Avoid generalizations here–not all families from Latin America eat tacos (these are distinctly Mexican), and not all families from India speak the same language (while Hindi and English are designated official languages, India has 122 recognized major languages.)
Rather than trying to act knowledgeable, then accidentally (and embarrassingly) appearing ignorant in front of parents, it is much better to state your ignorance with friendliness and curiosity. “You’re from where? I don’t know a lot about that country. Can you help me learn about your culture, so I can be sure that everyone treats your child with respect?”
Similarly, familiarize yourself with cultural and religious holidays that may result in changes in student behavior. School absences sometimes happens, but even harder for teachers is the unruliness that comes with student excitement about festivities! By gaining an understanding of important family events, school leaders can keep teachers and staff abreast of potential changes in student concentration or attendance, and scheduling conflicts can be avoided, such as testing, conferences, or other school highlights that might inadvertently exclude large populations of families.
How School Leaders Can Build Trust and Respect Among EL Students
Do your students feel seen and heard at your school? Are their names pronounced properly? Are they and their cultures represented on bulletin boards, in science and art fairs, on sports teams, on the honor roll? Are they represented among school staff? Are they represented by school literature? Before you answer these questions, check in with teacher, parent, or older student representatives who can express an honest, unbiased review. Too often in society, the majority speaks for the minority, whether it’s senior staff saying their company has a good environment for junior staff, men claiming a work culture that is supportive of women, whites speaking for ethnic minorities, or adults speaking for children.
Ensuring That Communication Flows Both Ways
Interpreting and translation is a challenge for every school, especially when small numbers of ELs from different language backgrounds are represented. However, even as few as 2-3 students from a single language background warrants an attempt to provide school information in a way that families can understand. Hiring bilingual staff is a start, but it may take creative outreach to churches, community centers, and small business owners to develop a pool of “volunteer ambassadors” to walk parents through school processes or translate materials. Always remember, however, that confidential and private information should be conveyed by official district or school staff only. Regardless, introducing parents and guardians to identified, bilingual points of contact is critical in keeping channels open.
Ensuring that Communication Meets the Needs of All Parties
This pool of interpreters may also have expertise in or connections to themes that EL parents would like to learn about. Offering workshops on the US school system, standardized testing, school programming, or even tax support or information on obtaining US citizenships, in the native language or with interpreter support, is one way to bolster parent knowledge, so that they feel empowered in their role as advocates for their students.
Also, be mindful of the educational paradigms EL families might be operating from. Parents may feel uncomfortable being treated as a partner, whether because they have limited education themselves or come from a culture that holds teachers in very high esteem. Recognizing that parents may have different expectations for how they contribute to the overall growth of their children is important when communication seems to break down.
Finally, EL parents aren’t always sure that their students are learning what they’re supposed to, especially when it comes to English acquisition. Make sure information about student progress is conveyed clearly and frequently. Parents responded well to a constructive, concrete comment about student learning in this post.
Forging Long-Term Partnerships
Invite dialogue and collaboration about what would work well for your families. Because they may work swing shifts or multiple jobs, or live in multi-generational homes, or may or may not be comfortable helping students with their homework (there are other things they can do), talk with parents firsthand about how they feel they can contribute to the school, and non-traditional ways they would be excited to learn more about. Out of this discussion, a bilingual family leadership network can form, which can eventually run autonomously, or partner with (or merge with) an existing PTA. The point here is staying inquisitive, ever probing for solutions that work for families.