Equity & Diversity

Schools Falter at Keeping ELL Families in the Loop

By Lesli A. Maxwell — October 02, 2012 8 min read
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As thousands of communities—especially in the South—became booming gateways for immigrant families during the 1990s and the early years of the new century, public schools struggled with the unfamiliar task of serving the large numbers of English-learners arriving in their classrooms.

Instructional programs were built from scratch. Districts had to train their own teachers to teach English to non-native speakers or recruit teachers from elsewhere. School staff members had to figure out how to communicate with parents who spoke no English.

But even as immigration has slowed or stopped in many places, and instructional programs for English-learners have matured, serving immigrant families and their children remains a work in progress in many public schools, especially those in communities that are skeptical, or sometimes hostile, to the newcomers. One of the biggest challenges, educators and advocates said, is communicating effectively with parents who don’t speak English—an issue that, in part, has brought recent complaints of discrimination against Latino students and their families to two large districts in North Carolina and one in Louisiana.

“The parent piece is so, so important for the success of these students, but it’s also one of the most difficult things we’ve had to tackle,” said Jim D. Rollins, the superintendent in Springdale, Ark., where the 19,000-student school system has gone from having no English-learners 15 years ago to more than 8,500 now. “You have to make it a priority and work on it, work on it, and work on it.”

Divides to Bridge

Aside from the practical challenges, such as finding bilingual staff members, steering districts through such drastic transformations requires school leaders to bridge difficult political and cultural divides. That can be a rocky transition, said Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, based in Alexandria, Va.

“For districts that had never had these Spanish-speaking kids before, at first they just didn’t know what to do,” said Mr. Domenech, who was superintendent of the 182,000-student Fairfax County, Va., school system during a time of rapid demographic change. “And for those school leaders in the South, especially in the last few years, they are dealing with a backlash of opinion against immigrants that makes the job even harder.”

School districts in the South—especially in states such as North Carolina and Georgia—have seen some of the most explosive growth in immigrant families and their children, most of them from Mexico. Few of them were equipped with staff members who could speak Spanish, or who had much familiarity with Mexican culture.

Civil rights advocates in the Southern states say they have become increasingly concerned with the treatment of Latino students and their Spanish-speaking parents in some school districts, prompting them to file complaints with the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights. Since 2010, that office has been aggressive in pursuing numerous complaints and opening investigations into school-related civil rights issues that had previously received little scrutiny.

Currently, federal civil rights officials are investigating discrimination complaints against Latinos in the 150,000-student Wake County, N.C., school system and the public schools in Jefferson Parish, La., a 45,000-student district just west of New Orleans. Last year, the federal office for civil rights struck a voluntary agreement with the 33,000-student school system in Durham, N.C., after investigating a similar complaint there.

All three districts were singled out by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a Montgomery, Ala.-based civil rights organization, for their treatment of Latino families.

“A lot of what we are seeing in districts stems from a serious lack of language access for parents so that they can be full participants in their child’s education,” said Jerri Katzerman, the deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “The other issue is that often the anti-immigrant sentiment in the broader community shows up, too, in an unwelcoming, or hostile, school environment.”

Lost in Translation

In Wake County, for example, the discrimination complaint stemmed from three instances when Spanish-speaking parents at different schools could not understand important documents pertaining to their child’s special education services or disciplinary procedures because they were provided only in English, or, if they did receive information in Spanish, it wasn’t complete, according to Peggy Nicholson, a lawyer with Advocates for Children’s Services, which worked with the Southern Poverty Law Center to file the complaint.

“For these parents, it was an issue of not being able to be meaningful participants in decisions about their child’s education,” Ms. Nicholson said. In Jefferson Parish, the complaints are similar, Ms. Katzerman said. In one case, a 7-year-old student was asked to translate for his Spanish-speaking mother at a parent-teacher conference because the school did not have a bilingual staff member. The boy, said Ms. Katzerman, didn’t understand much of what the teacher said, so he told his mother that the teacher said he was doing fine. Spanish-speaking parents also reported hostile, rude treatment at certain school sites in Jefferson Parish, and restrictive or nonexistent access to bilingual staff who could assist them.

In both districts, Ms. Katzerman said, the individual cases pointed to a broader, systemic problem.

Neither Wake County nor Jefferson Parish school officials responded to Education Week‘s repeated interview requests. Durham school officials also didn’t respond to interview requests, but in an interview with Education Week late last year, school leaders there said they had already been working to address shortcomings in providing adequately translated communications materials to Spanish-speaking parents when the civil rights office began investigating. (“OCR Pace on Probes Quickens,” Dec. 14, 2011.)

Even school districts with a long history of serving immigrant populations wrestle with this issue. In the 1.1 million-student New York City schools last spring, a group of 19 parents who don’t speak English filed a lawsuit against the school system, alleging that it had not provided important documents about their children’s special education services in a language they could read and understand.

‘Zero Experience’

In northwest Arkansas, where the Springdale district is located, a nearly all-white, English-only school system saw a surge of immigrant families from Mexico and the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific beginning in the mid-1990s, said Mr. Rollins, the superintendent since 1982. Plentiful jobs with the region’s two corporate giants—Tyson Foods, the world’s largest poultry producer, and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest retailer—brought the wave of new families.

“In total humility, we had virtually zero experience with immigrant kids and families,” said Mr. Rollins. “But we just knew we had to adopt the mentality that we had to be learners ourselves about the language, the culture, and the experiences with education that our families were bringing here with them.”

The district first set about developing an English-as-a-second-language program and training teachers, he said. Initially, it was completely ad hoc, with “learning and borrowing from other schools with a deeper history with this.”

Eventually, the school system brought in educators from California to provide professional development for staff members both in instruction for English-learners and cultural-competence training, a process that is ongoing, Mr. Rollins said.

All Springdale teachers, regardless of what they teach, were required to complete a professional-development program that teaches them the theories behind second-language acquisition.

But once the district had established a strong instructional program, hired Spanish-speaking bilingual staff members to work in schools, and trained teachers, Mr. Rollins said, “it was still clear that we wouldn’t have as much success with these kids until we engaged their parents.”

So, five years ago, the district—with the help of a grant from the Toyota Family Literacy Program—launched a program to bring its immigrant parents into their children’s schools every week to spend time in the classroom and receive their own English-language instruction.

Currently, the program is serving more than 250 parents across nine schools.

“It’s a powerful transformation for our parents,” Mr. Rollins said. “They sit side-by-side with their children and learn the curriculum, they learn English, and, ultimately, they learn to be really good advocates for their children.”

Mr. Rollins said the broader Springdale community, including the school board, has been very supportive of the district’s efforts to provide such programs for the immigrant community.

“We know we are very fortunate,” he said. “We all understood that these students are going to grow up here, stay here, and be a permanent part of this community. Their success is the key to our community’s success.”

Mr. Domenech, the AASA executive, said strong leadership from the top, especially from superintendents, is the most critical component for districts that are managing such dramatic demographic changes.

Superintendents, he said, “have to become the champion for these kids who have no champion. As superintendent, you are the one who has been tapped on the shoulder and you have to stand up on their behalf to your board, your staff, and your community.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 03, 2012 edition of Education Week as ‘Gateway’ Districts Struggle to Serve Immigrant Parents


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