Part One: Recognizing Underlying Principles
-- Contributed by Eileen Gale Kugler
We are thrilled to publish this two-part series on engaging immigrant parents by Eileen Gale Kugler. In this series, she notes a critical disconnect between many immigrant families and schools and provides practical tips for educators to understand the value of diverse perspectives and to build important partnerships with all parents. To read part two, click here.
Sylvia, a participant in a leadership class for immigrant parents in a diverse high school, presented a problem she had encountered: “One of my stepdaughter's teachers thought someone else did her homework. But the reason she is doing so well is that I am working with her at home.” Sylvia emigrated from Guatemala as a child and attended U.S. schools from 4th grade on. She speaks English fluently and is committed to helping her stepdaughter, who recently arrived from Guatemala.
“Call the teacher,” the leader of the class advised. “This is clearly a misunderstanding, and the teacher would want to know what is actually happening.” Sylvia was amazed: “You mean I can talk to the teacher? I felt I would be insulting her if I did.”
Sylvia’s story can tell us a great deal about engaging the growing number of immigrant families in our schools. While there are some commonalities among immigrants, they are diverse in many ways, even if they have emigrated from the same country. And despite a widely-held belief that the only obstacle to engagement is language, Sylvia shows that knowledge of English is not the only issue. Cultural barriers often remain, with many parents bringing the norms and expectations of school involvement in their home country with them.
Understanding How to Develop Authentic Parent Engagement
To effectively attract and engage immigrant parents as partners, educators need to first recognize some underlying principles.
- Every parent has something of value to share. The goal of engaging families is to build a partnership to support the students and the school itself. This work begins with the belief that every parent cares about their child and has something of value to share. Partnerships with parents cannot be built on blame – or pity.
Families of international backgrounds bring many strengths that are often overlooked. Think of the organization and resilience of an immigrant family who made the challenging journey to the U.S. or the respected work ethic of immigrants. In my work with immigrant parents, I am always impressed with their commitment to spend time together as a family, even when their children become teenagers.
- Cultural Differences Impact Involvement. Immigrant families bring with them the experiences and norms of the educational system in their home countries. They need information about the American educational system provided in a way that acknowledges and respects their cultural background.
For example, I visited a school in China that prided itself on high parent involvement. Over 90% of the families at this school came to parent programs, but all of these programs consisted of one-way information sessions, with no opportunity for the parents to engage in a dialogue or share their perspectives, knowledge or ideas. So an immigrant parent with a past school experience like this might attend a program at a U.S. school where the principal provides information, but would not participate in an activity where parents were expected to contribute their own ideas or insights. In fact, that is exactly what was happening in a school where I was invited to speak in the Midwest. The principal and faculty found the parents’ behavior a challenging obstacle until they recognized that this was how these parents thought they were supposed to act. With this understanding, the school leaders could strategically design outreach and programs to actively engage this community.
- The Complexities of English Remain a Barrier. Many parents with knowledge of English still lack understanding of its nuances or the academic language used in schools. Schools often rely on students to translate information sent home, but the students may be unreliable translators and they may screen information. Further, this places the child in an inappropriate adult role.
Ideally, information sent to immigrant parents should be translated by a native speaker. The information is most effective if the translator goes beyond just a literal translation to recommend the best way to communicate the message within that culture. Some schools hire Family Liaisons to provide this culturally competent connection to the community.
At school meetings, interpreters usually translate only what is being said by others, leaving immigrants as passive listeners. But immigrant parents themselves can be encouraged to become active contributors, with the support of the interpreter.
- Immigrant parents are diverse. Immigrant families are diverse themselves, from their knowledge of American culture and norms to their education and socio-economic level to their immigration status. Strategies to reach out to immigrant families need to be grounded in the specific needs and interests of the immigrant families within that community.
Different programs will speak to different immigrant parents. Some families need basic support, and schools can build trusting relationships by connecting them with community services such as health care. In Texas, Education Austin builds the capacity of their families by helping qualifying individuals apply for U.S. citizenship, with support from pro bono attorneys and volunteers.
In classes I led to develop immigrant parent leaders at a high school in Virginia, a number of the parents said the current programs for immigrant parents were too basic and not relevant to their needs. While those programs met the needs of some parents in the community, these immigrant parents needed more sophisticated programs on how to be their child's advocate in school, something they did not know from their home countries. These parents were ready to step into leadership positions, with information and ongoing support.
Part Two provides Strategies to Build Partnerships with Parents.
Eileen Gale Kugler helps schools develop positive high-achieving culture that values every student and family. She is author of the award-winning “Debunking the Middle-class Myth: Why Diverse Schools are Good for All Kids” and Executive Editor of the global resource, Innovative Voices in Education: Engaging Diverse Communities. She can be reached at EKugler@EmbraceDiverseSchools. Follow her on Twitter at @embracediversiT
- Want to read more? Click here to purchase Innovative Voices in Education: Engaging Diverse Communities and read our book review of this important resource. Enter promo code RLEGEN15 at checkout for 20% discount. You can also read a previous article “How Immigrant Students Strengthen American Schools” by the author feature on our blog.