English Learners

Ed. Dept. Releases New Toolkit to Engage English Learners’ Families

By Ileana Najarro — December 08, 2023 3 min read
Andy, left, a first-grade student at Mount Pleasant Elementary School, works on his math homework with Sharon Francisco, an English learner teacher with Roanoke County Public Schools on April, 26, 2022, in Roanoke, Va.
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The U.S. Department of Education’s office of English language acquisition has updated its English-learner family toolkit for educators and families to use for guidance in meaningful family engagement.

The free toolkit—available in English, Spanish, Chinese, and Arabic, and accessible as a mobile app for Android and iPhone devices—covers a wide range of topics, from helping families understand what documents they need to enroll English learners in schools to advice for educators on how to explain the importance of parent-teacher conferences and navigate language barriers that may prevent that sort of engagement. It is called the EL Family Toolkit app in both the Apple app store and Google Play store, developed by the Manhattan Strategy Group.

“Research is very clear,” said Melissa Castillo, a senior advisor at OELA at a webinar this month announcing the toolkit’s launch. “When our families and our caregivers are more involved and engaged in the education of their children, we see there are increases in positive academic outcomes as well as linguistic outcomes.”

Here’s some insight into what the toolkit covers and why its resource matters.

How the toolkit can help educators

Though intended as a resource for families and caretakers of the growing population of English learners, OELA officials also see the toolkit as a guide for educators working with these students.

Educators, in this case, are not confined to those with specialized training in teaching English learners.

“When we think about educators, we’re thinking about everybody and anybody at the school site, at the district level, and at the state level, that truly has a direct impact on the education of our students,” Castillo said. “So that is our teachers, that is our administrators, that is our paraprofessionals. Those are cafeteria workers, our parent liaisons, our superintendents, and so on and so forth.”

Officials at the OELA webinar emphasized the idea of shared responsibility regarding family engagement for English learners. It’s a concept researchers have been looking into when it comes to instruction since not all general education teachers are adequately trained to best support English learners. Yet they can collaborate and co-teach with English-learner teachers.

In the case of family engagement, OELA officials said families must know what rights they have and how the U.S. education system works to be able to advocate for and participate in their children’s education. Likewise, educators should understand what barriers families may face and how to address them whether rooted in language or cultural differences.

Each of the standalone six chapters, or sections, of the toolkit offers suggested questions families and caregivers of English learners should ask school staff. Educators should be ready to help answer them.

For instance, one chapter in the toolkit explains to families how various assessments work and their purpose. Educators are then also encouraged to consider ways to clearly explain assessment practices and purposes themselves, recognizing that some families may be unfamiliar with how U.S. assessments work, said Beatriz Ceja, the deputy assistant secretary in OELA.

Another chapter explains to families that their children can participate in extracurricular activities such as sports and student clubs and that there may be costs associated with participation. Educators should help explain what their schools offer.

Why guidance in the toolkit is crucial

The toolkit won’t just serve families and educators. Organizations that support immigrants and English learners, such as refugee resettlement agencies or local nonprofits, can also use it, Ceja said. For instance, one chapter explains the differences between public charter and magnet schools. That’s information these agencies can provide families as they sort out where their children will attend school.

The toolkit overall covers information on attending U.S. schools, services for students such as special education and dual language programming, finding extracurricular activities for students, the health and safety of students at school, and helping students be successful in school, including informing families of opportunities for Advanced Placement courses, and gifted and talented programs.

When enrolling students new to the United States with low English proficiency, researchers have found it beneficial to have state education agencies offer guidance to districts. The family toolkit serves as another resource.

“An essential first step is to inform our families of the availability of the toolkit,” Castillo said.

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