Equity & Diversity

Up to Speed

By Alexandra R. Moses — February 18, 2005 3 min read
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When Eun Young Lee emigrated from Korea a little more than two years ago, she landed on a foreign planet. Along with all the other strangeness she found in the United States, her son’s new school—St. John’s Lane Elementary, in Ellicott City, Maryland—practiced odd customs. Not only did teachers speak an unfamiliar language and let her son play between lessons; they also invited and even expected her to openly question them about his education. Lee says she felt isolated and afraid whenever she had to set foot on school grounds.

But that feeling changed this past fall, when she attended an eight-week program at St. John’s called Parent and Child Adult ESOL. PACE helped her understand what and how her son learns in his 4th grade class and encouraged her to learn English, Lee says through an interpreter.

Involved parents make for better students.

Schools and districts in other high-immigration areas of the country, including Arizona, Texas, Illinois, Virginia, and Idaho, are beginning to offer similar outreach programs to get immigrant parents up to speed on what their children are learning. The efforts, which range from simple orientation packets to full-fledged learning centers, are based on a simple precept: Involved parents make for better students. “Parents are role models for learning for children,” says Florence Hu, the assistant principal at St. John’s, who created the program at the school.

There’s a swelling need for such programs: A 2000 Urban Institute study found that immigrants accounted for 19 percent of K-12 students nationally in 1997—up from 6 percent in 1970. Hu and others say they’ve long seen a connection between lack of parental involvement and confusion about the U.S. school system. A 2001 study by Brown University examined Dominican, Cambodian, and Portuguese parents and found that along with discomfort with the English language, low parent-participation rates were attributable to “cultural conceptions of the roles of teachers and parents” and “lack of familiarity with the educational system.”

In Asia, for instance, teachers are unquestioned authorities and students learn by rote memorization, according to Hu. When those children begin at American schools, she says, their parents don’t understand what the approach to homework is or why playtime occurs during school hours.

Georgina Tezer, who runs a program for immigrant parents at the Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District outside Dallas, says lower-income immigrants also worry that the school will drive a wedge between parents and children. “They’re very scared their children will change,” she says. And educators aren’t going to be successful, she adds, if they only try to integrate the child and not the family.

This school year, Tezer added a component to her district’s offerings for new immigrants at three schools: a cultural ambassador program. Each recently immigrated family is assigned a parent from the same culture who acts as a liaison, making the initial introduction to the teacher. By having someone from their own culture say it’s OK and even expected for parents to be involved, parents feel more comfortable asking questions, she says.

Not that cultural orientation is a one-way street: The district’s teachers also receive training about cultural differences, including what they shouldn’t ask parents to do. For example, sending a note home about a child needing help with algebra homework to a mother with limited education would only embarrass and isolate that parent, Tezer says.

Susan Oh, a St. John’s 3rd grade ESOL teacher, has noticed the difference in parents who’ve taken the PACE course. Before, “parents wanted to be part of their child’s education but [felt] afraid: ‘What if I misinform my kids about some certain thing?’ ... Now they call school” instead of relying on their children to tell them what to do, Oh says. Hu says the school also has noticed an increase in homework turned in by such students.

Tezer emphasizes that schools can’t always wait for parents to take the initiative and seek help. In the past, schools “operated under the idea that immigrants have to adapt,” she says. “But if that’s not happening, let’s go to plan B. It’s to our benefit to walk half the way.”

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