Special Report

Home-School Connections Help ELLs and Their Parents

By Corey Mitchell — May 11, 2016 8 min read
Eriselda Hernandez, right, reads with Fernanda Arana, 6, before school begins at Washington Elementary School in San Jose, Calif. The school’s weekly Madre a Madre meetings help bring parents into the school regularly to support children’s literacy development.
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Leer en español (read in Spanish)

Week after week, Maria Arias Evans has to face her failure.

The 60 to 70 parents who crowd the library here at Washington Elementary School each Thursday morning, chatting in Spanish and snacking on sweets donated by a local bakery, are the product of years of dogged relationship-building led by the veteran principal.

When Arias Evans began the Madre a Madre parent program, five or fewer people would show up for the weekly sessions.

Where others see success, Arias Evans sees a shortcoming: Twelve years ago, she set out with the goal of attracting 100 parents every week. It’s all part of a painstaking plan to boost literacy in English and Spanish at Washington Elementary, a 425-student school near the city’s downtown. Four out of every five students on campus is an English-language learner.

See Also

For elementary school-aged English-language learners, parent involvement and support is key. In an Education Week live chat, two San Jose Unified School District educators discuss their efforts to partner with the families of ELLs to boost literacy.

Chat: Engaging the Families of English-Language Learners

Arias Evans knows, and research shows, that children whose parents are involved in supporting their learning do better in school. For English-learners, parent involvement is especially important for supporting successful language development.

Parents who speak Spanish or another language should encourage and support their child’s development and literacy in the home language, which can benefit their English-learning, research from the Center for Early Education Development at the University of Minnesota has shown.

That’s why the school library at Washington Elementary opens 50 minutes before the first bell and stays open 50 minutes after school ends each day. Parents pull Spanish and, if they’re comfortable, English books from the shelves to share with their children.

Then, when classes begin, transitional kindergarten and kindergarten classrooms for 4- and 5-year-olds are open for parents to do the same. The open-door policy draws dozens of families each morning.

“We want to send a message: ‘We expect you. We invite you,’ ” Arias Evans said. “We want to build a routine, so that it becomes part of the day.”

Not all schools are so welcoming.

“Most schools kick parents out when the bell rings,” said Maria Estela Zarate, an associate professor at California State University, Fullerton’s College of Education.

A decade ago, Zarate’s research on Latino parents found that schools and families have much different perceptions of what constitutes good parental involvement.

Tapping parent focus groups in Los Angeles, Miami, and New York, Zarate reported that communication activities with schools were impersonal and infrequent, and that parents rarely heard from anyone unless their child had an academic or discipline problem.

That approach can be discouraging for parents for whom language is already a barrier to school participation and engagement, San Jose school officials said.

But the disconnect doesn’t stop there.

Patricia Rodriguez, Vanessa Landeros, and Eva Marron (from left) listen during a weekly gathering of parents at Washington Elementary School in San Jose, Calif. Principal Maria Arias Evans began the Madre a Madre group more than a decade ago to bring parents into the school regularly. The 60 to 70 parents who come each week are helping support the literacy development of students in Spanish and English.

The teachers and school administrators that Zarate met with felt that the more traditional back-to-school nights, open houses, and parent-teacher conferences were important venues to communicate about students’ academic progress. The Latino families that took part in the study didn’t.

The findings are in sync with prior research findings that, in some Hispanic cultures, parents view teachers as the experts and defer education decision-making to them.

“The biggest challenge is not having the intimate knowledge about these families and their cultural practices and expectations for their children,” Zarate said.

Welcoming Latino Parents in Schools

Some schools have found understanding those things more difficult than others.

San Jose school leaders have strived to make their campuses more welcoming places, said Jason Willis, the district’s assistant superintendent for community engagement and accountability.

“Parents showing up on our campuses should be an invitation to learn,” Willis said.

Less than two miles from Washington Elementary, another San Jose school, Olinder Elementary, has garnered attention from the White House for its parent-engagement efforts.

The White House and the U.S. Department of Education honored Christian Rubalcaba, who was a teacher at Olinder, for developing strong parent-school relationships. Since he came to Olinder in 2010, Rubalcaba, now an instructional coach at the school, has visited the homes of all his students during the first month of each school year, as part of a program now known as Mr. R’s Home-to-School Connection.

Alejandra Ceja, the executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, visited the school in March to discuss parent engagement and efforts to recruit and retain Latino teachers.

A Chicago native and a product of that city’s public schools, Rubalcaba didn’t have a Latino teacher until he left for college.

Rubalcaba’s ability to speak Spanish has opened doors for him in a community where many families who may be undocumented immigrants can be leery of outsiders and see school and home as distinctly separate entities.

English-Learners’ Families Are Diverse

But even among native Spanish-speaking English-learners, Hispanics are a diverse group that defy simple categorization. Factoring in country of origin and citizenship status alone can make it more difficult to develop universal strategies to boost parental involvement, advocates and researchers said.

In Zarate’s study, English-speaking parents reported that email and web postings were a convenient way to communicate with teachers.

English-Language Learners and Schools: Resources for Parents and Educators

  • Education Week’s Learning the Language blog – Daily news and analysis on issues that impact English-language learners, their parents, and their teachers.
  • Education Week’s English-Language Learners Topics page - A collection of news articles, blog posts, and information on English-language learners.
  • The White House Initiative for Educational Excellence for Hispanics
  • The Council of Great City Schools’ parent guides to the Common Core English/language arts and math standards in Spanish. For math — Guía para los padres, For English/language arts — Guía para los padres
  • Seal of Biliteracy - The Seal of Biliteracy is an award given by a school, district, or county office of education in recognition of students who have studied and attained proficiency in two or more languages by high school graduation.
  • Californians Together – A research and advocacy group with key information on long-term English-language learners.

That’s not an option for parents who don’t read or write English, many of whom have little or no contact with teachers because reaching them by phone can prove challenging during the school day. Many of the parents also reported that campus security measures discouraged them from visiting classrooms during school hours without appointments.

“We shouldn’t be saying, ‘Your culture needs to fit exactly what we’re doing at school,’ ” said Tina Durand, an associate professor of human development at Wheelock College in Boston.

Durand’s research has focused on the nature of Latino parent involvement in their children’s schooling, Latino parents’ cultural beliefs about education, and effective partnerships between schools and Latino families. The studies and analyses have shown that parent involvement is a significant predictor of children’s literacy skills, and that bonds formed with other parents at the school may help increase school involvement among Latino families.

Research has shown that some Latino parents aim to ensure that their children behave and focus in class, which paves the way for learning in the classroom. While some teachers may simply see their actions as parenting, Zarate’s focus group participants considered it “education from the home.”

“We have to think about the biases and misperceptions we have of families, and that may include English-learners,” Durand said. “We have to want to make those connections and we may have to work harder to do so.”

A 2015 report makes the case that communities looking to improve education for school-aged English-language learners should also offer services to their parents.

The study from the Center for American Progress—“The Case for a Two-Generation Approach for Educating English Language Learners”—found that limited English skills for parents and students “can create a poverty trap for families” and argues that engaging them simultaneously improves the academic and educational well-being of both generations. Research has shown that English-learners who do not reach proficiency can often end up illiterate in two languages, effectively unable to read or write in either.

The report author, Tracey Ross, examined how the Oakland, Calif., district prioritizes family engagement at school to help parents become better advocates for their children. Nearly a third of students in that district are English-learners.

“It can’t be a one-size-fits-all approach. Each family has a unique situation, unique work schedules, their own children have unique needs,” said Ross, the associate director of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based policy think tank. “It’s a challenge to reach the most marginalized communities to begin with.”

It’s a struggle that Arias Evans, the principal at Washington Elementary, knows well. Many families arrive at her school because of a lack of education and opportunity in Mexico.

Helping ELLs’ Parents Realize Dreams

Plenty of parents have little more than a 6th-grade education, and more than 90 percent of families at her school live in poverty. She’s visited students and found them living with eight or nine other people in a 500-square-foot apartment.

“No wonder reading is not the priority,” she said.

That’s why she opens the library doors, hosts Monday morning coffees, and leads the Madre a Madre sessions, where she honors parents as Las Joyas de Washington, the Jewels of Washington. Regular participants have bejeweled crowns on display on a prominently placed library bulletin board. Parents can earn sapphires, rubies, and other gemstones for volunteering on campus in a host of ways, including reading to children.

Arias Evans understands that parents in her community may need access to health care, food pantries, and other supplemental services, but she also wants them to give back when and where they can. For some, it’s a weekend campus cleanup. For others, it’s founding an after-school reading program, like Juanita Escamilla did.

As a child, Escamilla wanted to work as a teacher. Though her dreams to do that were dashed, she has helped to build the capacity for future educators in her community, Escamilla said through a translator.

“Even if families don’t have the education we do, there are gifts that they can bring,” said Durand, the Wheelock College professor.

The school’s most earnest volunteers, such as PTA President Adriana Leon, rack up more than 300 service hours per school year. The mother of two children at Washington and a teenager who came up through the school, Leon came to the United States in 1999 to learn English. Seventeen years later, she’s still tussling with the language. But she’s amazed by her 5-year-old’s growing grasp of English and his development in Spanish reading and writing.

“I did not realize my dreams to become fluent in two languages,” Leon said through a translator, “but my children will be.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 11, 2016 edition of Education Week as Home-School Connections Help ELLs and Their Parents


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