Imagine an elementary school where more than 300 limited-English proficient students speak 18 different languages. Now, imagine kids eager to translate invitations for parents to come to school on a special evening that brings them together with the teachers. On these nights, teachers model activities that nonnative parents can use to help their children build important skills, and bilingual support staff speak to parents in their own language, giving them tips on how to get more involved in their children's learning. This is "Family Night School" at Randolph Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia, where teacher communication with immigrant parents is strong and grows stronger each year.
As each new school year brings more children with immigrant parents to schools around the country, it is becoming essential for teachers to find effective ways to reach out to those parents. And it may be easier than you might think. Most parents whatever language they speak are very interested in their child's education and are willing to do what they can to make sure their child succeeds in school. The goal for teachers is to figure out how to communicate with immigrant parents and to effectively "bring them in" to the classroom and the school community.
Seven Easy Strategies
Linda Smith, an ESL specialist, and Sharon Schafer, a reading specialist, developed the program at Randolph Elementary. While their program is school-wide, Smith and Schafer say it is possible for individual teachers to create their own smaller efforts to successfully reach out to immigrant parents. They recommend the following strategies for successful teacher-parent communication.
1. Make yourself as visible as possible. This is especially helpful during the first weeks and months of school. Try to touch base with parents when they drop off or pick up their children. Greet parents and make them feel comfortable.
2. Create a list of bilingual speakers. Have a list of older children at your school who are fluent in English and their native language so that they can translate for other students in emergencies. For example, a third grader explained to a new student at Randolph Elementary, who had wet her pants, that she needed to change into sweatpants, thus allaying her anxiety.
3. Enlist children to translate. Ask bilingual children to help translate during any special program with performances that bring parents to the school. Have students make invitations for their parents that they can then translate aloud at home. Or perhaps the students can also write the invitations in their first language.
4. Send home correspondence in different colors. As simple as this sounds, it can save time and confusion. If each piece of correspondence is in a different color, when parents call you about a flyer or a form they must sign and return, they can cite "the yellow paper" or "the pink paper" and make it easier for you to identify to what they're referring.
5. Recruit bilingual staff as parent liaisons. They can be invaluable in making personal contact with parents by phone. Likewise, if parents know when a bilingual parent liaison is at school, they can call with questions during those hours.
6. Explain the value of educational activities. In different cultures, field trips such as a trip to the zoo are seen as an extravagance and not a necessity. As you send home permission slips, you might need to send a flyer which students can translate explaining why the trip is more than just a fun outing.
7. Try to schedule meetings when parents can come. Many immigrant parents work at jobs with hours that conflict with parent-teacher conference times. Try to schedule meetings on parents' days off and, if possible, schedule a monthly time to meet individually with interested parents so they can learn about their children's progress and what they need to practice at home. This may take a bit more of your time at first, but the payoff committed parents who are eager to be a part of their child's learning may just be worth it.
A Lasting Impact
By the year 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau predicts that one in every 10 children in the U.S. will be foreign-born. While this may seem daunting, you can take comfort in the fact that teachers and schools around the country with large immigrant populations have been working successfully to connect with the parents of their students. They have discovered the richness of cultural differences and have used those differences to work with parents.
For example, at Glencarlyn Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia, teachers, administrators, and parents have developed closer bonds through the school's family meeting night programs and the individual teacher-parent meetings that take place either in the early morning or sometimes on weekends.
In her book, A Magical Encounter (Santillana USA Publishing Co., 1994), author Alma Flor Ada suggests that teachers enlist parental involvement by creating interesting and enjoyable activities that parents can do at home. For example, you may ask parents and children to write one piece of advice to one another that would help benefit them in their lives.
For many parents, the benefits of teacher-parent communications have empowered them to join their local board of education, to get their GEDs, go on to college, or become involved in other parts of the community. Your work with immigrant parents can have a lasting effect.