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May 1, 2011
Vol. 68
No. 8

Is Anyone Listening to Families' Dreams?

Schools can build partnerships with "invisible" families through targeted programs that value their dreams and experiences.
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The stately grandmother rose from her chair. She began speaking in Xhosa, her mother tongue, to the other families who had gathered that afternoon in a classroom in rural South Africa.
The interpreter did not interrupt Mrs. Nyati's impassioned speech. At the front of the room, I could only stand respectfully as she addressed her comments to me. We had gathered for a family engagement program I had organized during my second volunteer stint at this elementary school in the Eastern Cape. The families would spend several afternoons making a school quilt, with each family creating a square illustrating their hopes and dreams for their child. While the families sewed, they learned about school expectations and resources in the school and community. At this second session, the families were sharing what they learned from discussions with their children about the children's dreams.
When Mrs. Nyati finished, I wasn't sure what the translation would reveal. Was she challenging my presence as an outsider? Did she think the project was a waste of time and not relevant to the families' lives? But as her words were translated, their central message was powerful:
We do have hopes and dreams for our children, but no one ever asked us before. Thank you.
Mrs. Nyati's words struck me to my core. I was surrounded by impoverished, illiterate families. These are the families who often remain invisible in school, not just in South Africa, but around the world.
The teachers in this school, although dedicated to educating the students, expected little from the families, again not unlike schools in other countries. Even the principal, a great leader who had grown up in this isolated black township created under apartheid, could not see a significant role for families in the school.
After all, the families are largely uneducated. There are many grandparents raising children, and the parents who are around are too busy working in the nearby orange groves. I was warned that few families would come to the meetings, and those who came would be late. Yet at the scheduled time, the room was filled with 50 family members, who not only came to meeting after meeting, but also brought relatives and friends.

What We Can Learn from Every Parent

In reality, many families without formal education have lessons to teach and much to share. In South Africa, many parents of today's black students left school to fight apartheid or had no funds to continue their education. Even those who did continue had only a substandard education available to them.
Over the years, I have learned a great deal from these families who struggled against oppression and now struggle to move forward under democracy. Whether or not they have a formal education, their lives teach vital lessons, such as perseverance, hard work, and commitment.
On my third volunteer trip last August, I visited Mrs. Nyati's home. "You don't really want to see my home," she said initially. But when I assured her I truly did, her face lit up. She showed me her neat, small quarters of unfinished cinderblock walls, filled with photos of her children and grandchildren. She pointed to her partially built new home just a few feet away. It is one of the homes started by the South African government to replace the old mud or metal shacks in the townships. But the government funding has run out, and the house sits unfinished like so many others. She said, "I must finish it myself. I will get cement and put it up. And then I will clean it because it must be clean. And then I will paint it myself." I have no doubt she will.
Mrs. Pepeta, another South African grandmother, apologized for missing a meeting, explaining that she was taking a class. "What are you studying?" I asked. "English," she replied with a twinkle in her eye. I soon learned that she had excellent English skills already, and I often asked her to serve as interpreter. I learned from others that she had been a Gold Scholar in English in her early schooling, but the opportunity to be a stellar student evaporated under apartheid. So now, in her late 70s, she is continuing the education previously denied her.

How Parents Are Disempowered by Schools

These experiences in Africa helped me reflect on the immigrants in the United States who may appear to be un interested in school because they don't show up for a back-to-school night or a teacher conference. Having worked with immigrants who have come to the United States from all over the world, I've learned how much more complex the reality is.
Many parents came to the United States specifically for its education system, and they care deeply about their children's future. But they bring with them the rules and expectations of their home countries. They tend to keep their distance from their children's school as a sign of respect. They trust their children's education to the teachers and would never question trained educators. Further, many do not know how to traverse the complicated U.S. system—how to access enrichment or remedial services for their child or even what options are available.
Such families rarely find a place in school. In South Africa and the United States, as well as other countries around the world, schools underestimate them because of stereotypical expectations of what constitutes "a good parent." But many individuals, like Mrs. Nyati and Mrs. Pepeta, defy expectations.

Revealing Families' Hidden Strengths

There's far more to many parents than what appears on the surface. I worked with an extraordinary high school student whose family moved to the United States from Sudan when she was 8 years old. Her father had been a lawyer and judge, owning three houses. But he saw the limited opportunities for his three daughters, and when given the chance a decade ago to come to the United States through his brother, a U.S. citizen, he moved the entire family. With limited English skills, his job opportunities were few. His brother, who was helping the family acclimate, died of cancer.
Today, the father delivers pizza, and the family lives in a small apartment. But his daughter is fulfilling his dream as she begins college. As she spoke of her father, her eyes welled with tears, "He may only be a delivery man, but I know he is so much more. I am so grateful to my dad for bringing our family here."
How do schools reach out to families like these? Perhaps the school translates a flyer for a family meeting into another language. Or the school hosts an International Dinner. But too often, there is little personal outreach that treats the families as individuals, connecting them to school in a meaningful way.
A student who moved to the United States from Pakistan when she was 12 described how frustrating it was for her parents and herself to negotiate school customs, particularly in high school: "The school did not help my parents understand how American schools operate." When the student became editor in chief of the school newspaper in 12th grade, her mother could not understand why she had to stay so late after school and literally dragged her daughter out by the ear one afternoon. At the student's request, the newspaper advisor met with her mother and helped the student explain some of the requirements of being an editor. Armed with this knowledge, the mother supported her daughter's decision and soon began bringing the entire newspaper staff homemade food for their long editing evenings.
"The stereotype is that these families are a drain on our resources, but they have great strengths, and we need to tap into them," said Grace Valenzuela, program director of the Portland, Maine, Public Schools' Multilingual and Multicultural Center:
Immigrant and refugee parents have been able to survive extraordinary experiences in bringing their families here. Yet, once they are here, we disempower them. We need to give them the power to be in charge.

Opening the Door for Families

In South Africa, I felt humbled by working with families in the school where my husband, my adult daughter, and I have volunteered since 2008. Once given the opportunity to take part in a welcoming project that valued them, the families became more connected to the school. And they became empowered to advocate for their children at school, just as many of them had fought so hard against apartheid years earlier.
Back home, I have worked with school faculties and communities on strengthening school culture, creating an environment where students and families of all backgrounds are valued. Through family projects such as school quilts, community biographies, or group murals, families come together in a welcoming, nurturing environment. The families gain confidence in their role at school, and they learn the tools to be supporters and advocates for their children. I've seen true parent leaders emerge—parents who had little attachment to the school before the projects. As in South Africa, families share their dreams and appreciate the opportunity to gain the knowledge needed to help their children reach those dreams.

Not a Luxury

For many hard-working teachers and administrators, outreach to these families seems like an add-on. But family engagement is powerfully linked to student success. Research shows that, across races and income levels, students whose families are engaged tend to do better on tests, attend school more regularly, adapt to school better, and go on to postsecondary education.
The research reflects what is lost to schools when some families remain disconnected. Those families can't share valuable insights about their children. They can't mentor and guide their children through their educational travels. They can't help strengthen the school for the benefit of all the students. Schools miss out on their potential assistance in reaching other families from their community or cultural group.
As I work with school faculties, I quickly acknowledge that intensive family outreach requires time and commitment. But so does classroom instruction. We would not expect students to learn effectively using outdated instructional strategies. We can't expect outdated parent engagement practices to do the job, either.
Schools need new parent engagement strategies that reflect the realities of today's diverse families. Schools that successfully build partnerships with families use practices that break the long-standing mold, such as the following:
Reach out to families with novel programs that are welcoming and nonthreatening. Back-to-school nights and parent organization meetings work for some families, but others need a less daunting first step. To begin drawing families in, teachers can invite them to a classroom celebration of students' writing where the children serve as guides and translators. An early-morning breakfast event gives families an opportunity to join their children at school and then walk them into the classroom and meet the teacher before going to work. Targeted, small-group meetings provide a chance to meet with other families from their culture or neighborhood, building the confidence to then take part in larger family events.
Take outreach to the community. Some families find it intimidating just to walk through the school doors. To connect with families in a more comfortable setting, schools can hold meetings in community rooms, libraries, or religious institutions in the neighborhood. A local factory's lunchroom is a great place to connect with parents who can't leave work. Home visits are the ultimate way to show a family respect. As one teacher said, "This is not just about transportation to school or convenience; this says that we respect you so much, we are willing to come to you." Some schools offer the option of a parent-teacher conference in the family's home.
Make contact personal, sharing good news as well as concerns. Most schools communicate largely through flyers and form letters; when they do make personal contact, it's usually just to deliver bad news. No wonder some families never want to pick up the phone if the call is from school. To build trust, teachers should reach out with a welcoming initial contact and positive news throughout the year. Whether through a phone call, a personal note, or a home visit, families need to hear what is going well with their child. This includes secondary schools, where contact with a parent can make the difference between an adolescent who flounders or one who has the essential connection to school.
Send out invitations to school events in multiple ways, the more personal the better. For parents with more social capital—those who know how school works and feel comfortable being there—a simple flyer home may be enough. But for many other families, a personal note makes a big difference. Parents tell me that the amount of information sent home by schools can be staggering, especially if they have children in more than one school. But the one envelope they always open is the one hand-addressed by the teacher. Even if the teacher can't write in the family's home language, the parent can get a relative or friend to translate.
Look for other ways to reach targeted groups. Most cultural groups read newspapers geared to their community, and reporters for those papers are eager to write about local school events. The reporters often speak English even if the newspaper is printed in another language. A community or religious leader who is known and respected by school families can also be a great ally in efforts to connect with diverse families.
Support families so they can support their students. Culturally sensitive training on parenting issues (such as workshops on child behavior or disciplining adolescents) as well as education issues (such as family literacy or math nights where parents and children learn together) can help parents play a positive role. Leadership development training is also important in creating a new generation of parent leaders who represent the diversity of the community.
Hold targeted small-group meetings. As schools look for innovative ways to reach families, success can't be judged by the number of families who initially respond. Sometimes a smaller gathering is just what families need to feel comfortable. Then the snowballing can begin, as families invite their neighbors and friends. Future outreach efforts can be even more effective when the school collaborates with the new families who do become involved, learning firsthand what worked and what didn't.
Ask current family leaders to serve as mentors for newly involved families. To build a stronger school community, schools can pair newly engaged parents with long-active parents. Many families who are already active are eager to connect with new families; they just don't know how to get beyond their small circle of friends and acquaintances. As relationships develop, provide training to ensure that the perspectives and experiences of all families are respected, not just those who represent the "way we've always done it."

The Power of Families' Dreams

As schools grapple with ways to reduce the achievement gap, many of our students' families have dreams no one is asking about. Many are eager to help their children achieve those dreams, but don't know how. We need family outreach that respects their personal experiences, their culture, and their knowledge. Then we can build true partnerships with families that foster student success.
End Notes

1 The story quilt project is part of a parent engagement model called Tellin' Stories, developed by Teaching for Change (www.teachingforchange.org).

2 Henderson, A. T., & Mapp, K. L. (2002). A new wave of evidence: The impact of school, family, and community connections on student achievement. Austin, TX: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory.

3 Sobel, A., & Kugler, E. G. (2007). Building partnerships with immigrant parents. Educational Leadership, 64(6), 62–66.

Eileen Gale Kugler, a speaker and consultant, leads Annandale's immigrant parent leadership class in English. She is the author of Debunking the Middle-Class Myth: Why Diverse Schools Are Good for All Kids (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002).

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