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December 1, 2019
Vol. 77
No. 4

Partners in Learning

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When schools build relationships with the families of English learners, students benefit.

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School CultureEngagementSocial-emotional learningEquity
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When schools build relationships with the families of English learners, students benefit.
Lee and Kym Ang arrived from Laos at the beginning of the summer, giving them plenty of time to move into their new home and enroll their two children in the neighborhood elementary school. They had followed the advice of extended family members to settle into the same community, a suburb just outside a major U.S. city. Despite the help their family offered, the Angs were determined to be as independent as possible and navigate school enrollment on their own.
The Ang family was overwhelmed at first by the sheer size of the school. But they were impressed by the modern building and bright, colorful decorations displayed on the walls. The warm atmosphere was nothing like they had pictured. Everyone they met was polite, friendly, and welcoming. After they were guided to the main office, the office assistant handed them a home language questionnaire to complete, in which they indicated several languages were spoken in their home, including some English.
As the assistant reviewed their answers, the Angs glanced at each other with a knowing look on their faces. They assumed they would be asked the usual questions—Do you understand English? Do you need a translator? Or even worse, the person would begin to speak louder, as if they were hearing impaired. They were prepared for these situations, as they had faced them many times before in other circumstances. To their surprise, the assistant excused herself for a moment and called for two other people to meet them.
The principal and PTA president soon entered the office, greeting the Angs warmly and welcoming them to the school community. After a few pleasantries were exchanged, the PTA president invited the Angs to the first PTA meeting. In light of the Angs' language abilities, she asked if they would be willing to assist in translating for some other newly arrived families.
In the scenario just described, with the Ang family, the office assistant was prepared to welcome families who speak multiple languages and have different levels of English language proficiency. To the district's credit, all the school's employees had been part of culturally responsive training sessions and had worked with the principal to discuss and practice welcoming scenarios, which included being respectful, empathetic, and accessible when working with recently arriving families. The office staff, crossing guards, PTA representatives, teachers, school leaders, and central office administrators also participated in these trainings. Immediately inviting the Angs to be part of the PTA and acknowledging their multilingual skills established the parents as assets in their community. The Angs felt validated for their choice to "make their own way" as they visited the school and registered their two elementary-aged children.
As this example (a composite from our work in the field) illustrates, there are several key approaches to creating enhanced school, family, and community collaboration. But we strongly advocate for three essential actions from which you can build an engaging and welcoming school community: (1) create a supportive learning environment, (2) make resources multilingual and multimodal, and (3) build relational trust and systems for networking.
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Roseville Public Schools in Minnesota provides bilingual families an opportunity to meet, share a meal, and learn about topics of interest. Here, a father from the Karen community speaks with a family educator while his daughter hula-hoops nearby. (Photo by Kristina Robertson)

1. A Supportive Learning Environment for All

Schools must start with a healthy and safe environment—one that supports all learners in their physical, academic, linguistic, and social-emotional development. Ask yourself and your colleagues: What does such an environment look like? Are there culturally and linguistically diverse families who have been marginalized in the past? How can we be more intentional and inviting with these families? Here are some of the best practices that we have observed in supportive learning environments:
  • Parents are welcomed into the school building, as well as classrooms, all year long.
  • Parents of English learners know the names of their children's teachers, including the ESOL specialist, and how to best interact with them (by email, notes that the student brings home and back to school, phone calls, text messages).
  • Translators are available for school events, including parent–teacher conferences, and support all aspects of communication.
  • The knowledge of parents is valued and appreciated; administrators encourage questions and feedback from families and ask parents directly what they think their children need to be successful in school.
For a family and school to have a successful partnership, there must be strong levels of commitment and meaningful communication between them. Ingrid Corpuz, a student in our doctoral program and a bilingual ESOL teacher in Lancaster, South Carolina, offers one example of that:
As the bilingual ESOL resource, I began addressing the lack of family engagement and communication by establishing contact with all ELs and speakers-of-other-language families through a text-messaging system called Talking Points. This system allows educators to communicate with families from a variety of language backgrounds through multilingual text messages. Once communication is established, I invite families for a meet-and-greet within the first three weeks of school. We discuss the school's expectations, reading levels, ESOL classification and services, the importance of maintaining an active role in their children's education, and the adult ESL (English as a second language) program that I teach every year. A follow-up text is sent after the meeting, encouraging further discussions and assuring my presence and intent.
With the same text messaging system, I post information about schoolwide events, and for EL students, a check-in message on each student's progress in class—a program we call Glows and Grows. Collaborating is key: I am present at as many meetings involving ELs as my schedule permits. At the beginning of every school year, I meet with teachers, teacher assistants, and school specialists to discuss ELs, review available services, and share communication strategies. Also, each student has a binder with all their weekly work, which includes teacher feedback and learning strategies. Parents are encouraged to comment on the assignments or via Talking Points once a week. Finally, after each report card is issued, I hold a 30-minute conference per grade level so parents can share thoughts and ask questions.
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Newcomer high school students receive homework help from EL specialist Aaron Sanders. The teens are part of a migrant program in the Nampa (Idaho) School District that works closely with families to acclimate them to the U.S.(Photo by Gracie Delbo)

2. Providing Multilingual and Multimodal Resources

One of the best ways to understand students is to know their families. Teachers must recognize the diversity of their families and family structures and see how these impact students on a daily basis. Hattie (2012) states:
We so often make claims about students, their learning styles, their attitudes, their love or not of schooling, their families and backgrounds, and their cultures. In so many cases, this discussion is about why we can or cannot have an effect on their learning. (p. 25)
Relating to students and their families—and identifying their needs—leads to the important step of helping parents obtain the appropriate resources. Many schools use websites with multilingual translations to share information. Even so, not all parents are familiar with the routines or language of schooling, filled as it is with terms such as "half-days," "parent-teacher conferences," "trip money," or "lockdown." This can be a barrier to parental support. For example, we recently heard the story of a child with multiple absences. When the parent was finally reached by telephone, she explained that in her native country, the children do not go to school when it rains. School cultures and norms vary widely throughout the world, and being explicit with multilingual resources can help families build a foundation toward learning.
Another key idea is to provide multimodal resources that support parents' involvement in the school community. For instance, the school could host events such as reading drives, in which books are shared, or swap days, in which outgrown sports equipment is traded with other families. Teachers can create mini-videos of activities the students complete or videos of "how-to's" for assignments. Parent centers can be added to libraries or community centers as a way to share resources and information, and on designated days, parent volunteers can host other parents to explore resources in collaboration with teachers. In essence, effective school communities frequently create opportunities to interact with parents rather than simply waiting for parents to come to school.
A wonderful example of resource-sharing is highlighted by Alejandra Ruiz, a migrant high school graduation specialist who we worked with in Nampa, Idaho:
We were invited by the district EL coordinator to present information about our migrant program to the district's EL teachers at their monthly meeting. The teachers learned more about how they could refer students to our program, and as a result, we were able to support several new migrant students. Aaron Sanders, the EL specialist at Skyview High School, sent us a list of about 8–10 students. Gisel Holdecroft, our district migrant liaison, visited those students' families and was able to qualify most of them for our program. We then set up a follow-up home visit to inform these students and their families of our district's graduation requirements and the services we provide to support students' academic growth. We also shared information about community resources they could access as a family.
As we got know the students better through home and school visits, families shared the need for additional after-school support. A couple of the students were newcomers and were doing their best to keep up with school but were struggling. So we signed them up to attend the hub a few days a week—an afterschool "hangout" spot for unaccompanied youth that had been expanded to serve students needing extra support, such as tutoring or English classes. These students were able to get help with schoolwork and improve their language skills using multimodal resources (such as text-based and visual- or image-based communication tools). Thanks to this support, these students were able to finish their school year successfully—and with high GPAs.

3. Building Relational Trust and Networks of Support

Many school districts are busy deliberating how to best use existing resources to support English learners. In such discussions, teachers and administrators often talk about the importance of first impressions. Schools that invest in community-engagement activities ensure that first impressions of a school are positive and enduring. School-family relationships flourish when administrators and teachers show a genuine interest in the communities they serve.
One way to build relational trust is to establish clear networks to support incoming students. In the opening vignette highlighting the experiences of the Ang family, we saw that the office assistant was the first link in the networking chain. This first link often reflects the role of a school's "broker"—a person with knowledge and language that can reach out to newcomers and act as a mediator for the district. Such brokers or mediators can help families with basic questions that they may have about the school and connect them with resources to successfully navigate the new system of education. Relationships are not automatic, yet sustained interactions with brokers may promote the very trust that is needed to maintain supportive networks.
What do such relationships look like for English learners and their families? Kristina Robertson, a colleague of ours and the EL program administrator in Roseville, Minnesota, works with a network of "cultural liaisons" to establish authentic partnerships with parents in her district. She explains:
One of the goals in our district's strategic plan is meaningful engagement with diverse families. Our district only has 7,000 students, but we have prioritized resources to support a cultural liaison team of 11 people who represent our major cultural groups—Latinx, Hmong, Somali, Karen, and Nepali languages as well as Native American and African American communities. The cultural liaisons have been trained as advocates to build a bridge between the school and home culture. They also have received mental health first-aid training and learned how to facilitate restorative circles.
All cultural liaisons host family events during the year. Some of the events include culturally specific gatherings that focus on topics of interest to that community. For example, our African American families recently came together to celebrate successful scholars and to learn more about post-high school opportunities. In our meetings with Latinx families, we offered presentations on trauma and resources to support stressed-out parents. As a follow-up, we partnered with a local Latinx community organization to provide small-group stress reduction classes. Our Karen and Nepali families were relatively new to the country, so those gatherings focused on their interest in positive parenting techniques and how to partner with teachers to support their children. For all of our meetings, we offered a culturally appropriate dinner, a speaker, and time to talk. Transportation and daycare were also provided.
The feedback from families thus far has been positive—and they want to meet more regularly. We have experimented with smaller events at schools where the cultural liaisons host coffee and bagels, allowing parents to stop in when they drop off their children. Our cultural liaisons have built strong connections with these families, who are now more receptive to receiving calls home when there are concerns about their child.
We also encourage teachers and administrators to contact these families directly and share positive comments about their children. We have an interpreter line available to staff so they can call home and speak to any family. We also have an app (similar to FaceTime or Skype) that teachers can download on their phone or iPad and click to connect with an interpreter if they are conducting home visits or speaking with parents out by the buses. Ideally, all staff members will feel comfortable using these tools to create and maintain partnerships with our bilingual families.
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Young learners in Lancaster, South Carolina, proudly pose outside their classroom during student-led conferences. Parents hear from their child about their progress, discuss "Glows and Grows," set goals, and ask questions.(Photo by Ingrid Corpuz)

The Power of Bidirectional Engagement

Pause for a second and think about how often you may have heard the following thoughts stated out loud: They don't speak English? How can we even try to involve them? We don't have the resources. Now think about a bridge with two-way traffic. Imagine at one end of the bridge is the community and its resources; at the other end of the bridge is the school and its resources. The flow of students, immediate and extended family members, as well as community members goes back and forth over the bridge and forges school-community relationships. Joyce Epstein and her coauthors (2019) view this exchange as family-like schools (where teachers value each child as a parent or caregiver would) and school-like families (where families support their children's education by developing relationships and understandings with the teachers).
Keeping this aspirational model in mind, we might ask why school events are often limited to those that parents and extended families are invited to, such as parent-teacher conferences, holiday shows, or open houses. These invitations are one-directional (suggesting that parents are "guests") rather than bidirectional (empowering parents to be active community members) (Delgado Gaitan, 2012). An example of bidirectional family engagement is when afterschool classes are offered to parents or older siblings to support English language acquisition and are geared to helping adults navigate home and work responsibilities (Delgado Gaitan, 2012). The easier the adjustment to their new home, the more parents will be able to support their children at home and in school.
Ross (2015) explains that one way to support English learners is to embrace a "two-generation strategy," which is necessary to "close the language gap and expand opportunities" (p. 2). For instance, when planning activities that involve parents, give attention to whether parents are off from work, childcare for siblings is available, or events overlap with mealtime. Many school events are planned around teachers' availability, leaving some parents feeling left out or marginalized.
The critical goal for teachers, administrators, and program coordinators is to build and sustain relationships with families so that their children benefit. Another way to strengthen bidirectional relationships is to ensure that parents have a voice not just in determining the times that work best for events, but also in choosing the agenda, developing the programs or events, and appraising the outcomes. Bidirectional, collaborative activities empower all stakeholders and result in a safe and trusting learning environment.

A Civic Duty

We believe that parents know their children best. Horsford and Clark (2015) encourage teachers, administrators, and staff to "recast parental involvement as civic engagement" (p. 75) so that all efforts to build partnerships become transformative and engage the community. Using the three guideposts, we encourage educators to create supportive learning environments, make resources multilingual and multimodal, and build relational trust and systems for networking. This is one pathway in which you and your colleagues can raise the bar for quality interactions that lead to affirming and exemplary partnerships.
References

Delgado Gaitan, C. (2012). Culture, literacy, and power in family-community-school-relationships. Theory into Practice, 51, 305–311.

Epstein, J. L., & Associates. (2019). School, family, and community partnerships: Your handbook for action (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. New York: Routledge.

Horsford, S. D., & Clark, C. (2015). Inclusive leadership and race. In G. Theoharis & M. Scanlan (Eds.), Leadership for increasingly diverse schools (pp. 58–81). New York: Routledge.

Ross, T. (2015). The case for a two-generation approach for educating English language learners. Washington, D.C.: Center for American Progress.

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