Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Engaging Immigrant Parents as Partners: Part Two Strategies to Build Partnerships



-- 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 and build valuable partnerships with all parents. To read part one, please click here.

Immigrant parents can be a valuable asset to the school, as motivators and mentors for their own child, as connectors to members of their cultural community and beyond, and as a source of fresh ideas and perspectives for the school. Far too many are disconnected from schools, not understanding fully their role in American schools and not feeling welcome or valued there. Personal outreach that builds relationships, values these parents for their strengths, and targets their specific needs and interests will empower school leaders to build effective partnerships with immigrant families.

A Fresh Look at Parent Engagement

With some 25% of all students in schools today living with at least one immigrant parent, schools need to take a fresh look at parent engagement strategies. Research shows that parent engagement can have a major impact on student success, for students of every background.

Traditional parent involvement programs, like back-to-school nights and parent-teacher conferences, were created decades ago, and they meet the needs of parents who are knowledgeable about and comfortable with the American educational system. Many immigrant families, however, find them overwhelming or intimidating and they do not attend. The result is that some educators may assume that immigrant parents don't care about education. In reality, the education of their children was one of the motivating factors drawing many immigrant families to the U.S.

Strategies to Build Partnerships with Immigrant Parents

Go beyond traditional programs for family involvement. Strategic design of family engagement, based on the background, needs and interests of the specific immigrant families in that community, is essential to build valuable partnerships with immigrant parents. Recognizing that many traditional programs are designed for those already comfortable at the school, educational leaders need to explore non-threatening ways to encourage immigrant parent involvement: a classroom celebration of children’s writing where family members accompany their child; a breakfast with their child before work with a personal moment with the teacher; or a culture-specific program. A welcoming parent center with bilingual staff can provide space for immigrant parents to begin to feel comfortable at school. 

Success of outreach is often measured by the number of attendees, but targeted small group activities can be more welcoming and effective. After parents become comfortable in these meetings, it is important to find ways to connect immigrant families with other families in the school, through classroom-based activities or school-wide projects where families work side-by-side.


Connect parent engagement to academics. While it is important to build personal connections, the engagement cannot stop there. To truly have an impact on student achievement, research shows that there needs to also be a connection to student learning. International dinners can be a welcoming way to bring families into the school, but they don’t need to stop at breaking bread together. One high school in Northern Virginia with immigrants from many cultures turned their dinner into Bravo Night, inviting immigrant graduates from the school to talk about the strategies that enabled them to succeed in college and career.

Programs such as math or literacy nights can provide immigrant parents with insights on classroom learning. For parents who did not have the benefit of quality education themselves, adult literacy classes can build their capacity to support and mentor their children. Immigrant parents – and all parents – can benefit from learning the academic connections of subjects like music, art, and physical education. 

Get out into the community. Some families find it intimidating to just walk through the school doors. Others may be concerned about going to an “official” building, worried about their own immigration status or that of a loved one. Parent meetings can be held in community rooms or at religious institutions in the neighborhood. A meeting at a public library can be a comfortable way to introduce immigrant parents to this valuable resource. Sometimes a lunchroom in a local factory is a great place to connect with parents who can’t leave work.

If your school has a process for conducting home visits, they can be an effective way to build relationships with immigrant families. Many families feel honored that school officials come to their homes. A successful Latina entrepreneur told me her life changed in first grade when the principal visited her home, fostering a stronger connection to the school for the whole family. Pre- and post-visits procedures and tips are essential for a safe, successful home visit so communicate with your school and families prior to commencing a home visit program.  For additional support, please see the Family Engagement Resources from the Flamboyan Foundation and “Carol Sharpe: A View on Home Visits” published on Edutopia.

Rethink the structure of parent-led activities. Parent leaders need to rethink what “welcoming” looks like – beyond a friendly hello when a new person enters the room. To diversify attendance at and leadership of parent groups, leaders can work with teachers and guidance counselors to identify immigrant parents who could become more involved, and then provide support and training. Connecting immigrant parents with long-time parent leaders, as welcoming friends or mentors, can be a powerful way to build relationships. While fundraising is important, if this is the parent group’s major purpose, it can place value on only those parents with the contacts or personal finances to contribute.

Invite families in multiple ways. A simple flyer sent home or a broadly-sent text may appear to be for “someone else” to a parent who is disconnected from the school. Include personal notes home with the child, individual texts, emails and follow-up phone calls – the more personal, the better. Use multiple ways to get the message out. One Maryland elementary school placed a sticky note on each child’s jacket saying, “Bring me to the family program at school tonight!” Notices in local foreign-language newspapers and fliers at ethnic restaurants, markets, or other community venues can be particularly valuable. Local cultural newspapers usually have English-speaking staff and are eager to report school news.

Collaborate with local groups that serve immigrants. The most effective family engagement begins with an understanding of the background, interests and needs of the particular immigrant families within that community. Community organizations, culture-based groups, and houses of worship can be powerful partners in connecting with families, as well as planning and hosting programs. Leaders of these groups can provide a trusted link to immigrant families.

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

Additional Resources

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 a 20% discount. You can also read a previous article “How Immigrant Students Strengthen American Schools” by the author featured on our blog.

We want to hear from you!

What are the diverse ways you connect with immigrant parents? Please share your thoughts with us by emailing us at teacher@immcouncil.org and we’ll share best practices on our blog and with educators in our network. All submissions will be eligible for a $25 Amazon gift card.

Stay Connected!
The American Immigration Council offers free lesson plans, resources, book/film reviews, and grants to teach immigration. We also welcome teacher and student book reviews and contributions to our blog. Email us at teacher@immcouncil.org and follow us on twitter @ThnkImmigration #teachimmigration.