Equity & Diversity Reporter's Notebook

Conference on English Acquisition Promotes Parent-Outreach Efforts

By Mary Ann Zehr — October 12, 2004 3 min read

If educators want to get immigrant parents involved in their children’s education, they need to do more than just send them invitations to meetings.

That was the advice of an immigrant parent who spoke at a session on parent involvement at this year’s Summit on English Language Acquisition, held here Oct. 5-7. The U.S. Department of Education’s office of English-language acquisition sponsored the event.

Finding ways to help immigrant parents support their children’s schooling was the theme of numerous sessions at the meeting, attended by some 1,400 educators who work with English-language learners.

Miguel Abreu, the president of the English-language-learners parent committee for the 23,600-student school district of Grand Rapids, Mich., said that when he and other parents first tried to persuade immigrant parents to attend school meetings, they telephoned each family individually. They also went door to door talking to parents about education.

Mr. Abreu was one of five immigrant parents from Grand Rapids, some with limited English skills, who helped tell the story of how such parents formed an advisory committee that has evolved into a districtwide model for engagement of all parents.

The model is structured so that the Grand Rapids district has an advisory committee made up of “parent leaders” from each school. Within a school, each grade also has parent leaders who report to a parent who represents them on the district level. At the classroom level, parents of students are organized into small groups for communication and volunteerism.

Roberto Sáenz, the executive director of second-language acquisition for the school district, said parents have been charged with helping the district reach its goal of having all children reading at or above grade level by 2007. The district has held workshops for parents, for instance, on how to help their children with homework.

The school system has trained administrators, teachers, and parents on how to work together.

Mr. Sáenz said that when school personnel made it clear to immigrant parents that English-language learners in Grand Rapids have much lower achievement overall than their native English-speaking peers, the parents became motivated to help.

By using volunteer translators and providing headphones to some members of the audience at the conference here, the Education department provided simultaneous-translation services for Spanish-speaking parents. About 10 of some 150 parents in attendance used the services.

Elodia Amador, a parent of three children in the Corpus Christi, Texas, school district, said in Spanish that the translation services helped her get a lot out of the conference.

The sessions reinforced the importance of Hispanics’ getting involved in their children’s education, she said. “We have the same rights as the blacks and the whites,” she added.

Conference sessions also stressed that all school information that goes to Spanish-speaking parents should be translated into Spanish, she said. (“Translation Efforts a Growing Priority for Urban Schools,” Oct. 6, 2004.)

Ms. Amador noted that some Spanish-speaking parents are afraid to take part in school activities because they imagine that someone will discover they are undocumented and might try to get them deported. Ms. Amador, who was once undocumented but now is an American citizen, said she tells the parents they shouldn’t be afraid and should visit their children’s schools.

The conference planners from the office of English-language acquisition structured sessions around seven elements that they believe are essential for schools to serve English-language learners well and also comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The elements are: integrating academic content, English-proficiency standards, and assessments; aligning content standards and curriculum; collecting student data; using student data to make adjustments in programs and instruction for individual students; using research-based methods to train teachers; involving parents; and connecting efforts to improve learning for English-language learners with everything else going on in a school.

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