If school districts want a broader, more diverse group of parents to attend meetings, ask questions, and participate in school-based activities, they can’t just invite families to show up—they need to set up systems that make them feel welcome and heard.
That was one of the takeaways from a panel on Latino parent engagement March 8 at SXSW EDU, the annual education conference hosted in Austin.
On the panel, “Elevating Latino Parents in Education,” parents, advocates, and educators discussed efforts in the Houston area to make home-school communication smoother, and equip families with the knowledge and skills to advocate for their kids.
Many studies have demonstrated the positive effect of family involvement in children’s education. But for Latino parents, and parents of other underrepresented groups, there can be big challenges to talking with school officials, advocating at board meetings, or participating in other school-based activities—from language barriers to differences in cultural norms about how parents and teachers should communicate.
Some research has found that teachers view immigrant parents of color as less invested in their children’s education than white parents, a perception that was linked with lower grades for these students.
But district and school leaders need to start with the assumption that all parents care about their kids’ schooling—and that they have the power within themselves to advocate, said Max Moll, the chief engagement officer for the Houston Independent School District.
“It’s our responsibility as a school community to give the families the tools they need to engage,” Moll said.
‘We are moms, trying to find solutions’
In Houston, the district has worked on several initiatives to develop these tools.
Mitzi Ordoñez is a mother with children in the district. She was also a 2021 fellow with Familias Latinas por la Educación, a leadership development fellowship for caregivers of school-age children through the advocacy group Latinos for Education.
“We want the best for our kids,” Ordoñez said through a translator about her cohort of fellows. “We are moms, trying to find solutions.”
In group meetings, she and the other fellows discussed the need for more interpretation—especially at school board meetings. After school leadership came to one of their meetings to hear their concerns, the district put in place a new policy: Every board meeting would have a Spanish language interpreter.
“That has been awesome, because people have been participating way more,” Ordoñez said. “We have been encouraging other moms, ‘Hey, there is interpretation here, you’re going to be able to come here.’”
The district has also used ESSER funding to place a parent liaison on each campus, to lead parent and community engagement work, Moll said. They hope to continue that work with philanthropic support after that federal funding expires.
Building these kinds of communication supports are crucial, so that students don’t have to bear the responsibility of translating for their parents, said Ordoñez.
Familias Latinas por la Educación, the fellowship that Ordoñez completed, is intentionally organized to make it workable for parents, grandparents, and other caregivers to participate, said Sandra Rodriguez, the Greater Houston advocacy director for Latinos for Education, which runs the fellowship program.
At group meetings, the organization provides child care, meals, and transportation stipends for families that need them. They open each meeting with a community building activity, focused on identity and culture.
And the group focuses on issues that the fellows care about. One recent one has been school funding, said Rodriguez—how the funding system works, and how it can be influenced.
“The children are watching,” Rodriguez said. “They’re watching moms be engaged, standing up, [saying] that this is not good enough. We deserve more, and we deserve better.”