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April 1, 2009
Vol. 66
No. 7

A Place for All Families

Building bridges and abandoning misconceptions is key to raising family involvement in schools.

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Are we as educators aware of the community that surrounds our schools? How well do we know the families of the students in our classes? When those families come from cultures that are different from our own, what assumptions do we make about their willingness and ability to get involved in their children's schooling? Because of the many studies that show increases in student achievement when parents and other caregivers actively participate in their children's education, schools are making a concerted effort to encourage greater family involvement (Delors, 1996; Ramirez, 1999; Wentworth, 2006). How might our attitudes and practices encourage—or discourage—such involvement?
To effectively enhance parent participation, educators must get to know the families of their students. Unfortunately, some educators assume that every immigrant family has the same background and deals with the same issues. But the circumstances of a family that has been in the United States for two or three years are different from those of a newly arrived family. Olsen (2006) identifies five different kinds of English language learners (ELLs), each with specific and unique language needs. The individual families of these students might be equally diverse, and if we want them to become active members of our school community, we must get to know them personally.
The strategies presented here come from teachers, administrators, and researchers who have worked with English language learners and their families throughout the United States. By adapting these strategies to meet the needs of families in your community, you can create stronger bridges between the school and home and can better support the ELLs in your student body.

Explore the Community

What do students pass each day as they go to and from school? What type of homes do your students live in? What businesses and landscapes are part of their world? What community events take place around your school? Are there festivals you can attend? Is there a place of worship you can visit?
Teacher candidates and master teacher candidates studying at California State University–Fullerton and Biola University answered these questions by writing a community travel paper. Starting at a school, each participant traveled two to three miles on three different occasions, taking different routes each time. They then reported back on what they saw.
One master teacher candidate in the program lives in a sought-after Southern California ocean community roughly 40 miles from where he works. Yet he goes shopping in the neighborhood where he teaches, invites the students at his school to work on his car, and is a regular presence in the neighborhood. His love and respect for the community have led him to venture out and become more familiar with his students and their parents.
Another teacher in the program was wary of shopping in stores near her school. She described her classroom as the place where she was in charge, and she worried that if she encountered students outside her classroom she would lose this position of power. Her negative attitude toward ELLs and the neighborhood where they lived was based more on stereotypes than on actual experience. When this teacher finished her community travel paper, her attitude was transformed. By following the lead of these educators and finding out what assets are present in the community, you can become a more effective advocate for families.

Learn from Families

Families and students enjoy seeing their teachers show an interest in their lives, and learning about students' lives outside the classroom can help teachers tailor instruction to meet their needs. Many teachers of ELLs learn about their students by memorizing phrases in these students' native languages, purchasing a notebook calendar with multiethnic holidays, and inviting parents to come in and speak about specific holidays and cultural practices.
One teacher invited the mother of a Salvadoran student to come into the history classroom and share something from her culture. The mother brought in tamales, and the students talked about how different Latino cultures prepare tamales in different ways. (Some cultures use corn husks as wrappers, others use paper, and still others use banana leaves.) The teacher used the opportunity to ask her students about other similarities and differences among cultures, making the presentation a learning opportunity for both her and her students.
Often, we can avoid misinformation and cultivate openness simply by asking questions. Not all parents are open to sharing, and they could perceive your questions as prying, so it's important to be sensitive. You might ask parents to tell you about the positive qualities they see in their children and encourage them to share stories that show off these positive traits. When you ask questions, try prefacing them with a positive statement such as, "I am enjoying your child's…" or "I like having your child in class." Such reinforcements tell the parent that you care.
It may also help to share things about your own life with parents through such simple statements as, "I remember I had the same troubles as a youth" or "I struggle with learning a second language; can you help me pronounce these words?" This helps the parents and the students relate to you as a human being.

Open the Schoolhouse Doors

As society changes, teachers can no longer rely on their own cultural heritage to inform their understanding of the families in their school community. This does not mean that any teachers' culture lacks value; it simply means that teachers must be aware of other viewpoints and allow others to maintain their own culture. When we understand this, we will be better able to make our schools places that welcome students and families from a variety of backgrounds.
Unfortunately, in some K–12 schools, family interactions are limited to infrequent back-to-school nights and open houses. At many of these events, families are shepherded from one class to another with only 5–8 minutes in each classroom. At the end, the teachers report to the faculty lounge for a meeting, and the parents leave the school. Many families have questions that require more than a short back-to-school night presentation, and these families may not feel comfortable contacting teachers on their own.
Culturally aware teachers never assume that families understand the education system in a new country. Many families of ELLs do not believe they should be part of the schooling process (Ramirez, 2008). Recent Latino and Asian immigrant parents, for example, may avoid involvement in their child's education out of respect for the teacher. Be prepared to explain to parents how they can positively influence their child's education, and mentor these families with information about the school and about how they can partner with teachers to help their children succeed.
  • I can make a difference in helping my child do his or her best in school.
  • I help my child every day with schoolwork.
  • I keep in regular contact with all of my child's teachers.
  • I schedule a period in the evening as homework time.
  • I display my child's schoolwork in the home.

Seek Solutions

Some families are unable to participate in school activities for logistical reasons, such as the inability to get off work for school functions, difficulties finding child care, and transportation problems. They also may not know when functions were scheduled or may not recognize the value of participating in school activities.
To overcome some of these obstacles, contact parents early in the school year, preferably during the first two weeks of school. Although it may seem daunting, this first phone call, which should always be positive, is a great opportunity to demonstrate your interest and learn what you can do to help parents get involved. Find out the best way to contact parents by distributing index cards at the beginning of the year and asking students to provide current phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and information on the best times and ways to make contact.
Inform parents of open house events by sending home an addressed, personalized card well in advance. A personal card from you tells parents you wish to see them. Also, more parents may be able to attend an open house on a weekend. Find out what days and times are best for most parents, and schedule events accordingly.
Technology can be a valuable way to stay in touch with families, but not all families have access to the Internet at home. Do not assume that parents will be able to get online regularly. Open the school computer lab for parents or help them find places where they may use a computer, such as at a local library. If you use the Web for assignments and information, tell the parents what kind of information you will share online and offer opportunities for training on how to use a computer. Remember that your students could be your biggest asset in training parents. Use them!
For many parents, language is a significant barrier to participation. Establishing bilingual hotlines that families can call with questions and concerns might help. Some schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District use multilingual staff to assist teachers in speaking with parents who call in with questions about homework, tests, or other concerns. Together, teachers and staff can help parents become better informed.
Parent involvement practices do not require teachers to do everything. Recruit, recruit, and recruit parents to work with you. Parents who speak languages commonly used in your community can help with phone trees that the school can use to share announcements of concerts and sporting events or to remind parents of important deadlines, such events as yearbook sales, and schoolwide standardized tests.
If certain languages are especially common in your area, make sure some of the pages on your Web site are also available in these languages. Create a newsletter on school and classroom activities for your families. The trick is to have the students create these, making the newsletters an educational opportunity for students as well as helpful communication vehicles to reach parents. Secondary teachers in an urban school in Los Angeles have had much success with student-created newsletters for families. Their newsletters, some of which are available in Spanish and English, have included information on topics being covered in class, classroom procedures and objectives, test-prep tips, and announcements of upcoming events.

The Right Attitude

Our beliefs affect how we teach and interact with others, so we must be aware of our own thinking and assumptions.
Take some time and write out what you like and dislike about teaching ELLs and examine how you came to hold your beliefs. Ask yourself whether your attitude comes from experience, from assumptions you've made about these students and their families, or from depictions of parents in education literature (Ramirez, 2002). As an educator, your mission is to help all students achieve, so it's important to be aware of how your attitude affects your teaching.
Our flexibility and willingness to learn and change tell families and students that we do not believe that our own culture is superior to theirs and that we want all students to succeed. When working with ELLs within your school, you need to devise ways to interact positively with their families. Developing strategies can be tough at first, but students realize a great benefit when parental participation increases.

Delors, J. (1996). Learning: The treasure within. Paris: UNESCO.

Olsen, L. (2006). Ensuring academic success for English learners. UC Linguistic Minority Research Institute Newsletter, 15(4), 1–7. Available: www.lmri.ucsb.edu/publications/newsletters/archive.php

Ramirez, A. Y. (1999). Teachers' attitudes toward parents and parental involvement in high schools. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Indiana University, Bloomington.

Ramirez, A. Y. (2002). Hidden curriculum or simple mistake? How parents are portrayed in educational journals. School-Community Journal, 12(2), 51–62.

Ramirez, A. Y. (2008). Immigrant families and schools: The need for a better relationship. In T. Turner-Vorbeck & M. M. Marsh (Eds.), Other kinds of families: Diversity in schools and culture (pp. 28–45). New York: Teachers College Press.

Wentworth, G. (2006). Parent involvement in an international school: Piloting an early childhood reading group. Young Children, 61(1), 56–60.

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