Minority Principals, ‘Cultural Brokers’ Reach Immigrant Parents

By Michele Molnar — March 19, 2012 3 min read
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How do schools encourage immigrant parents to participate in their child’s education when there are cultural and language barriers to overcome?

Often, it’s a matter of finding school personnel with strong ties to a racial or ethnic group who can act as a bridge between the culture of families from the parent’s country and the American education system. However, it is not always necessary for the champion to be from the same group.

What is important is that these so-called “cultural brokers” can explain to immigrant parents how to navigate the school system for the benefit of their children, according to Melissa Marschall, the Albert Thomas Associate Professor of Political Science at Rice University in Houston, TX.

Finding these champions is critical, because every culture has its own sensibility about what is expected from formal education, Marschall told Education Week.

For parents from Mexico, for instance, academic education is traditionally left to the schools, with the understanding that parental teaching to instill values is undertaken at home. The idea of sharing opinions with a teacher about what is best for a son or daughter—an expectation of American teachers—is culturally foreign to many Mexican families.

Marschall and two collaborators have studied how schools engage immigrant parents. They found that minority principals and other administrative personnel at elementary and high schools play a key role in implementing policies and practices aimed at engaging immigrant parents of students.

Their research is published this month in Social Science Quarterly. Marschall was the lead author on the article, with Paru Shah, of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Katharine Donato of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN.

The researchers compared two distinct groups: 447 schools in districts with established immigrant populations—Iin Houston, New York City, Chicago, and select towns near the U.S.-Mexico border—and 685 schools in areas where engaging immigrant parents is a newer challenge due to rapidly expanding immigrant populations—Cedar Falls, Iowa, and Durham, N.C.

Their analysis was based on data reported by principals from the 2003-04 National Center for Educational Statistics’ Schools and Staffing Surveys. The researchers looked specifically at questions about how much parents are involved in different activities.

“A substantial body of research has linked parent involvement to an increasingly wide range of schooling outcomes, including improved student performance and self-esteem, teacher confidence and community relations,” Marschall said in a Rice University announcement about her research.

“But in many cases, immigrant parents have cultural and language differences that negatively impact their involvement in their child’s schooling and education. With the rapid growth of immigrant populations ... parental outreach programs are more important than ever.”

Cultural brokers with important connections to parents’ racial or ethnic group of origin had a positive impact in school policies and practices in districts with established immigrant populations. At schools in new immigrant destinations, such cultural brokers are in much shorter supply. At these schools, though, the study found a positive association between minority principals (African-American) and parental involvement programs, which suggests that these principals are taking an active role in addressing the needs of immigrant and minority parents.

“We believe this research demonstrates that school personnel don’t necessarily have to share the same backgrounds to understand the needs and issues of immigrant parents and students or to make decisions that will benefit them,” Marschall said.

She hopes the study will encourage schools and districts to explore ways to engage immigrant populations and provide resources that these groups need to be involved. As school demographics change, their outreach programs must evolve, too.

Providing translations of all school communications is one step schools can take, so that the school children themselves are not required to act as translators on behalf of their parents.

Learn more about the research here.

A version of this news article first appeared in the K-12 Parents and the Public blog.