To Connect with Parents, Start by Speaking Their Language. Literally.

How would you feel if you knew your son or daughter was struggling, but you couldn’t understand their report card or ask the receptionist for time to speak with someone?

If you're a parent, communicating with schools and keeping tabs on how your child is doing can be like trying to understand a foreign language. Report cards look different than they used to, it isn't always easy to tell which homework assignments are due when, and there are enough acronyms for alphabet soup. What are Lexile levels? What is LEAP? What's an IEP and what does it mean when you are told that your child has an exceptionality?

Now, imagine if you were trying to navigate all of this and didn't speak English. Did you know that there are currently over 4.6 million students in the United States who are designated as English Language Learners (ELL)? Along with those students, there are millions of parents who are trying to ensure their sons and daughters get the best education possible. We hear time and time again about how schools are missing the mark when it comes to providing adequate support services for their ELL students, but the lack of ELL supports for parents and families is even more egregious.

Let’s talk about Maria and Roberto

Here’s a real-life example: I’m currently supporting a mom named Maria and her son Roberto.* Maria works in the New Orleans business district and began getting support from us through her employer last year. A central American immigrant, she only speaks a little English. Roberto’s a first grader in Jefferson Parish who has been struggling academically, especially in English Language Arts. He also fidgets a lot in class and often gets reprimanded by the teacher for moving around too much or not focusing on his work.

Last fall, Maria saw that her son was not doing well in school and knew that something had to change, so with our help she requested that he be evaluated for special education services. The school reluctantly agreed. Sixty days later, at the end of the evaluation period, they confirmed that Roberto had a speech exceptionality and qualified for an Individual Education Plan (IEP). They told her to expect a detailed, 20+ page document that thoroughly described what they had noticed.

I was at the meeting to help translate for Maria, so I asked, "Will that 20+ page document be translated into Spanish? Maria doesn't speak much English. She's not going to be able to find the answers in a document that she can't understand."

The official who oversaw the evaluation shrugged her shoulders and said, "Well, we just don't have the manpower for that. I can barely jot down all of these details in English and it took me weeks because I'm swamped."

I ended up translating the document for Maria myself. At the next meeting, where a speech therapist and school officials met with Maria to discuss the actual plan for Roberto, I asked again if Maria would be receiving a copy in Spanish so that she could keep track of it. Again, the answer was, "No."

Maria’s experience trying to get her son the help he needed wasn’t off to a good start, and it didn’t get much better. Throughout the remainder of the year, Roberto received his IEP-required accommodations, but they didn’t seem to be very effective. He continued to struggle in English Language Arts, earning F's in that subject. It became apparent that he was going to fail the grade, even with his IEP.

During this time, Maria got increasingly frustrated. She couldn’t understand why Roberto’s teacher wasn’t regularly communicating with her about his progress (or lack thereof). The teacher didn’t speak Spanish, but the ELL paraprofessional in the classroom did, and Maria wasn’t getting any updates from her, either. Maria felt alone and frustrated. The last time we talked, she told me she's thinking about moving across the city so that her kids can go a school that can better accommodate them, because she just doesn't see it happening at their current school.

How sad is all of this?

What makes it sadder is that it's not an anomaly. I work with all of our Spanish-speaking families in New Orleans, most of whom live in Jefferson Parish, where the number of non-English-speaking refugees and immigrant families has been climbing steadily since Hurricane Katrina.

Among all the families I work with, I often hear the same sentiment. They feel as though their kids’ schools and teachers rarely communicate with them and don't provide a welcoming or safe space for them as parents.

Why do so many of them feel this way? It boils down to the lack of language support that Maria experienced. At most schools in Jefferson Parish (and in the New Orleans area in general), no one at the front desk speaks Spanish. Many schools rely on ELL paraprofessionals and Spanish teachers for translation assistance, but if they’re busy, then parents may just be out of luck. Many schools also lack access to Spanish-speaking counselors for students, don’t usually have interpreters at school events, and rarely provide translations of materials they send home.

Not surprisingly, parents of ELL students in these schools start to feel disconnected and powerless. How would you feel if you knew your son or daughter was struggling, but you couldn’t understand their teachers’ comments on the report card or ask the receptionist for time to speak with someone about your concerns?

What can schools do?

I get it — it’s not always easy for schools to accommodate all of the different needs of their students’ families. Some schools serve communities that include multiple ethnicities and languages, not just one or two, and time and resources are scarce to begin with. But I don’t think it’s asking too much to expect schools to provide supports for the most common languages, and to ensure that every family feels welcome and respected. (Besides, it’s always a plus to comply with federal law.)

If you're a school principal or teacher reading this, you may be wondering where to begin. Here are a few tips:

  1. Make them feel welcome. Hire a bilingual parent liaison or receptionist so that parents don't have to sit and wait for the Spanish teacher or an ESL Para to finish their lesson. If you can’t find or afford someone full-time, look for someone part-time and clearly communicate their schedule to families. Make sure signs and instructions around the front office are also available in Spanish.
  2. Translate everything that gets sent home. Make sure that ALL major communications sent home are translated. This includes behavioral reports, field trip notices, progress reports, report cards, etc. Even if the child speaks perfect English, you should NOT rely on the child to translate for the parent. Pre-print common forms, letters and notices in Spanish (and other languages commonly spoken among families at your school), to make things easier.
  3. Learn some key phrases! Knowing a few common phrases in the languages most often spoken at your school can go a long way towards making families feel more welcome.
  4. Look for resources online. Organizations like Colorín Colorado offer free tips, guides and videos intended to help schools support and engage families of ELL students more effectively.
  5. Take advantage of technology. Tools like Google Translate aren’t perfect, but can help you bridge the gap. You can also find online translation services that provide reasonably quick turnarounds on any document you need translated.

* I’ve changed their names to protect their privacy.

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