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Engaging ELL Families: 20 Strategies for School Leaders

Imagine that a new immigrant family has moved into the neighborhood your school serves. What services does your school and district offer that would make this family feel welcome? What programs do you have that will challenge their children? What aspects are you still working on to make your district more appealing for this family?

If you feel that there is a lot of room for improvement, take heart — you're not alone! Numerous school leaders around the country are serving districts with new English language learner (ELL) populations and are, as Buffalo principal Kevin Eberle puts it, "flying the plane while building it." It's never too late to start engaging your ELL families, though, no matter how ineffective those efforts have been in the past.

As a school leader, you are in a unique position to make ELL success a priority; to create a culture of respect for ELLs and their families; to allocate resources — even if limited — on behalf of ELLs; to mobilize and empower your staff to become teacher leaders; to encourage the staff to keep trying creative approaches until they find what works; and to lead the community in creating a school-wide action plan for engaging ELL families.

And once you do find what works, you will feel as though you have won the lottery. Engaged ELL parents bring a level of dedication and wisdom regarding their children to the school community that will take your breath away. They have so much to offer to each other, to parents of non-ELLs, to their children's teachers, to the school leaders, and of course (although we may forget it sometimes), to their children. The most important thing is to start with an open mind and to keep reminding yourself to think outside the box. Here are some big ideas to get you started. A list of specific strategies related to each idea is available in the accompanying document, Engaging ELL Families: Questions for Reflection and Strategy Checklist.

A note on "parent engagement"

In their book Building Parent Engagement in Schools, Larry Ferlazzo and Lorie Hammond explore a distinction between parent engagement and parent involvement. Parent involvement, as they define it, is a top-down model: "The ideas and energy come from the schools and government mandates. Schools try to 'sell' their ideas to parents. School staff and public institutions might feel they know what the problems are and how to fix them, and determine the criteria to use in evaluating success." Parent engagement, however, distributes the weight more evenly: "Ideas are elicited from parents by school staff in the context of developing trusting relationships. They emerge from parent/community needs and priorities. More parent energy drives the efforts" (6).

It's worth it keep this paradigm shift in mind when considering your approach ELL family engagement, not only because "schools can get a bigger bang for their (figurative) buck" but because this approach allows parents to dig in and find their own energy reserves, rather than expecting staff to dig deeper into already depleted energy reserves (2) to add another thing to their plates. Many of the strategies listed below complement this model and offer ways in which parents can take the lead in school-wide activities.

Part I: Getting Started

1. Learn about your ELL population

Learning about ELL students and families provides an important foundation on which to build everything else you do at the school. Even a basic knowledge about students' ethnic and linguistic backgrounds, or the situations from which they have come, can prove useful. For example, if you are in North Dakota and have a new group of refugees arriving from Iraq, staff should be alerted to their ELL families' assets (such as resilience and an incredible will to survive) as well as challenges these families are facing (such as the lack of a winter wardrobe or post-traumatic stress disorder). This kind of background may even help avoid serious discipline situations, as described by Dr. Cynthia Lundgren in the "Understanding Student Background" clip of her video interview for administrators.

  • Start first with your ELL/bilingual educators. they are an important resource whose experience can benefit the entire school community, and they will appreciate the opportunity to share their expertise! The school district may also have some resources in place, and local community organizations may be able provide essential background information as well as a network of interpreters. Once you have found out what's already available, go directly to the source and find out what you can from the families themselves. You may want to include some of these questions in the home language survey or a very basic questionnaire that the parents fill out with the help of an interpreter.
  • Remember that your ELL population is not homogenous. Even families from the same country may have vastly different educational and socioeconomic backgrounds. The child of a migrant worker from Mexico probably won't have the same educational and personal needs as the child of a diplomat from Mexico. While it may seem daunting, try to find out what you can about each child's unique circumstances — it will go a long way in matching your students with the services and support appropriate for their situation.

2. Integrate cultural traditions of your ELL families throughout the school community

Becoming familiar with and including the cultural tradition of your ELL families within the larger school community not only enhances your ability to create a welcoming and respectful school environment — it has practical considerations as well:

  • Scheduling — a large number of your families will be absent due to an important cultural or religious holiday, it is worth scheduling important events such as exams or conferences around that day so that large numbers of students and parents don't miss the event.
  • Classroom opportunities — Familiarity with ELL families' cultural traditions will provide teachers a base from which to build on background knowledge in the classroom. It is beneficial to share this cultural information with staff well in advance of special events or holidays so that teachers may incorporate it into their lessons and ensure that students don't miss valuable content instruction.
  • Improved communication — Learning about your students' traditions may help avoid miscommunication or cultural blunders that can damage the school-home partnership. Staff may be uncomfortable discussing these topics at first, and may even resent the changes happening around them, but having an open dialogue about the "cultural shifts" that are taking place (as Dr. Lundgren describes them) will make it easier for everyone to help create a more positive and accepting environment.

3. Create a welcoming environment for families

A welcoming school environment can make a tremendous difference for all families and especially for ELL families. At Options at Lincoln School, in Olympia, WA, for example, the entire school is there to greet you in the front hallway — the school has posted photos of all of its the families in the school entryway (Houk, 9). Other things you might try include:

  • Displaying maps and flags from your students' native countries
  • Enlisting a bilingual morning greeter to get the day started on the right foot.
  • Creating a special area for families to gather such as an extra classroom or lounge (64).
  • Encouraging teachers to create a welcoming classroom environment

Another way to think of this is by keeping your ELLs visible. ELLs are often treated as an invisible minority, even though more and more schools' success depends on their success. ELLs and their families should "see themselves" throughout the school, whether it's on the walls through student work and photos, in the classroom with books and lessons that incorporate their experiences and traditions, in school-wide cultural activities, or in the faces of staff and volunteers who come from similar backgrounds. Entering a friendly, vibrant atmosphere lets families know that the school is an integral part of the community and that they (and more importantly, their children) are valued members of that community (Houk, 63). This can be especially important for immigrant families who may be intimidated by the formal school environment and the English language needed to understand it.

4. Make a personal connection with families

Getting to know ELL families helps build an important relationship based on trust, which in turn can pave the way to student success. This approach is most effective when the communication is personal and face-to-face (Mori, 40, Alford 85). Consider, for example, this excerpt from a parent letter to an administrator about the first time the mother visited her daughter's school: "I was very surprised when we were not able to speak to Lupe's teacher, Mrs. Gibbons, individually. In Guatemala we all knew the teachers and the teachers knew the parents…We do not know anyone here nor does anyone know us…we would have liked to tell Mrs. Gibbons how much we value education" (Amaya, 53).

In this case, the parent finally did meet Mrs. Gibbons and a good relationship developed over time — but imagine the additional benefit for Lupe had the meeting taken place earlier in the year! One can also imagine that Mrs. Gibbons didn't know just how committed Lupe's mother was to her daughter's education. While it will require additional time and effort, building a more personal relationship with ELL families will yield big dividends throughout the school year (Mori, 40) and will provide opportunities for the staff to see just how deeply ELL parents care about their children's education.

A better life

5. Show that you value families' native language

As the school leader, one of the most important roles you have is defining the terms of engagement when it comes to ELLs' native languages. Do you see those languages as a barrier or an asset? Do you see native language literacy and instruction as a crutch or a tool? Unfortunately, the political climate often dictates district or state policy regarding native language support (Wright, 51), and frequently, ELL parents themselves are the party most resistant to promoting their native language at home or in the school because they believe it will hinder their child's ability to learn English. While this belief is entirely understandable, the research is clear that strong native language skills contribute to ELLs' academic success throughout their education — in their native language and English. What can you to navigate this tricky terrain?

  • Respect parents' intentions: It's critical to respect parents' wishes and goals for their children; often, however, explaining to parents that strong native language skills will indeed help their children in the future reassures parents that you have their children's best interest at heart as they come to understand the value of raising bilingual children.
  • Encourage native language use at home: Don't miss an opportunity to encourage parents to read and tell stories to their children in their native language (and explain that this will in fact help their reading skills in English), and look for ways that the school can support this important interaction by offering bilingual books in the school library and bilingual story hour and performances!
  • Professional development: provide training to all staff on the importance of maintaining students' native language and on how to support students' bilingual development. Understandably, many teachers still feel that the best way to help ELLs is to forbid native language use in the classroom. Keep in mind that they may in fact have students' best interests at heart, and there may also be some anxiety about not being able to understand what students are saying. The best way to address these concerns and questions is through good professional development with an expert. Not only will the staff learn strategies that will help them and their students — it will give them the information they need to answer parents questions about this topic with confidence as well!

Part II: Communicating Important Information

6. Find ways to communicate with ELL parents

One of the greatest challenges for schools and ELL parents is communicating with each other. While schools may feel frustrated that they can't get their message across to parents, parents may be just as frustrated that they can't communicate easily with the school and their child's teacher. Parents do want to know what's happening to their child, even if they haven't been able to communicate that to you.

  • Create a good translation process: Farin A. Houk underscores the importance of establishing two-way communication on both sides, as well as the necessity for a translation process that is "formal, steady, and reliable." What does not work, she says, is sending notes home in English, talking slower or louder, simplified words and gestures, or using students or family for confidential or in-depth translation/interpreting. She also underscores the importance of written and oral options as alternatives for families of varying educational backgrounds (65-66). Houk offers a number of strategies for creating a strong communication framework, detailed in the checklist.
  • Encourage phone calls home: Offer staff training on how to communicate in simplified English on the phone when necessary. Many mono-lingual teachers and staff are reluctant to call homes of bilingual students because "they won't be able to understand anyway," which puts more burden on the rest of the bilingual staff. It is possible for each person to call home and try to communicate, whether by speaking with someone about the basics, leaving a message, or leaving a number and getting a call back from an English-speaking relative.

7. Make the enrollment process manageable for ELL parents

Enrolling children in school is a complicated process for any family. There are forms to be filled out, decisions to be made, policies to read, programs to learn about, and questions to be answered. For ELL families, a number of other obstacles arise: perhaps an interpreter is not available to translate; perhaps the parents are unaware of services (such as free- and reduced-lunch) for which they qualify; perhaps they don't understand how bussing works; perhaps they are confused about their rights and their children's rights; perhaps they are reluctant to show any form of identification. There are, however, a number of ways to approach the enrollment process for ELL families.

  • Bilingual staff — When possible, bilingual staff in the main office who are available to help families any time they come in.
  • Enrollment night — Schedule an "enrollment night" in which families can learn about the enrollment process and school policies with interpreters on hand.
  • School liaisons — Assign each family a school contact who speaks their language and guides them through the enrollment process (Houk, 66).

Finally, assume nothing. Your ELL families may be coming from entirely different school systems, or from a situation without any schooling. Young-Chan Han of the Maryland Department of Education discusses a number of lessons learned from immigrant families that she has worked with over the years, including the family who thought they could take the school bus with their child, or the child who stood outside in the cold for an hour on the morning of his first day of school before a janitor let him into the school — on the morning of a snow delay.

Regardless of how it's done, ELL parents must have access to the same information as non-ELL parents; sending that information home in English will not ensure that it is read and understood. (A list of important topics to share with ELL parents is included in the checklist and in Things Your ELL Newcomers Need to Know.)

8. Make the enrollment process accessible all year long

Keep in mind that schools must be prepared to enroll ELLs throughout the school year. Many schools are prepared to register and enroll new students only at the beginning of the school year, and anyone who enrolls after that gets a short-cut "fill and drill," especially if no interpreters are available. Administrative assistants or ELL teachers may be pulled from their regular duties to translate and help families fill out forms; this is not an acceptable solution. Instead, consider ways that your school can establish an on-going, welcoming enrollment process for ELLs throughout the year by soliciting ideas from those who are most involved in the enrollment and intake process: main office, ELL, and bilingual staff members.

9. Provide opportunities for parents to learn more about important topics

For parents who are not familiar with the U.S. education system, there is a lot to learn — and it's pretty complicated! Consider offering parent workshops that inform families about the U.S. school system and complex topics such as:

  • using school websites to check their students' progress
  • parent-teacher conferences
  • standardized testing
  • special education services
  • the college application process.

You might also think offering workshops on more general topics, such as computer literacy, or finding reading resources and strategies from Colorín Colorado. This is another area in which to enlisting other staff members, parent volunteers, or community members to help run some parent workshops could prove to be effective!

Part III: Parent Participation

10. Look for ways that ELL parents can help with children's schoolwork

ELL parents may feel intimidated by or inadequate to help with homework or other schoolwork, especially if they have limited educational or English skills (Zarate, 9). Look for ideas that you can share with parents about supporting their child's schoolwork that they will feel good about, such as:

  • checking to make sure that their child's homework is done
  • asking the child to tell the parent about the school day each evening
  • finding a way to keep in regular contact with the teacher or school staff member.

(This is also a good time to remind parents about the benefits of reading and telling stories in their native language, as well as all of the great homework resources at the public library!)

11. Look for ways that ELL parents can participate and volunteer

As you start to develop a relationship with parents, there are a number of ways to help it grow.

  • Invite parents to visit their children's classroom on a regular basis so that they become familiar with the classroom, teacher, and school activities (Houk, 66). Teacher Miriam Soto-Pressley invites the parents of her ELLs into her classroom during reading time. The parents follow along with their children and they learn about more about read-alouds and how to interact with text. This helps them work together at home to increase reading comprehension.
  • Encourage parents to volunteer in the classroom, main office, lunchroom, or library; during parent or school events; or in a student club or after-school program (Meyer, 45).
  • Find out what your parents' skills and hobbies are — you may be able to harness some of your parents' talents on behalf of the school, such as the preschool center where parents took it upon themselves to build a gazebo where parents could wait for their children in the shade.
  • Look for ways to bring ELL and non-ELL families together through student performances, a "student cultures" night, storytelling, workshops, and exhibits (Meyer, 46). Your families might just realize that they have more in common than you — and they — originally thought!

12. Think outside the box about parent involvement

One of the most important steps in engaging ELL parents is to realize that their experiences may in fact look very different than what we are used too (Houk, 60). Consider the following:

  • Cultural assumptions: In many countries, parents have different cultural assumptions about the role of the parent in a child's education, and they are not expected to participate as a "partner" in their child's education (Hori, 40). Some excellent examples of these different perspectives are included in Understanding Latino Parental Involvement in Education: Perceptions, Expectations, and Recommendations, a report published by The Tomás Rivera Institute.
  • Deep respect for teachers: Many ELLs come from cultures which revere teaching and where the teachers are considered the experts, not the parents — and where in fact the schools do not want parents to "interfere" in the child's education. As experts Betty Alford and Mary Catherine Niño note, you wouldn't expect a doctor to ask the parents which medical procedure they would recommend for their child (Alford, 80), so why would a teacher expect the parent to be the expert about the child's education?
  • Activities beyond meetings: Attending a meeting is not the only way that parents show they are invested in their child's education. Take, for example, the teachers who organized a meeting for the school's Hmong and Cambodian parents in which they would discuss the creation of a new school garden. The teachers were disappointed when few parents had attended the meeting, but on garden day, eighty family members arrived with hoes and dug up the garden in a single day. These were families with rich agricultural expertise, and as one parent said, "We don't do meetings. We do gardens" (Ferlazzo, 45).

13. Look for the successes

Encourage your staff to look for all of the different ways, big and small, that ELLs' families (including parents, siblings, grandparents, and other relatives) support their children's well-being and education. For example, different relatives may be involved in taking the children to school and picking them up, providing child care, or just making sure that they are getting fed and getting a good night's sleep. It's also important to note that older ELLs may be helping their families by doing the same for younger siblings or cousins.

While we expect all families to manage these responsibilities without giving it a second thought, ELL families may be going to extraordinary lengths to meet their children's basic needs. In addition, keep in mind that ELLs' parents might in fact be largely absent from the picture, whether it's because of difficult work schedules or a family separation (or worse) that happened before moving to this country.

14. Consider alternative schedules and locations for family events

Sometimes, when families can't come to the school, the school has to go to the families. Meeting families in other settings such as community centers or churches can provide an informal way to start building a relationship, especially if ELL parents feel shy or nervous about going to the school. In addition, going into the community indicates a strong level of commitment on the part of the school to the families (Alford, 86). Another alternative may be to plan parent or family events around the schedules of the families, especially if they are working a couple of jobs or shifts.

In Philadelphia, for example, an early childhood center held a parent meeting in the afternoon for parents who worked in the food service industry in the evening, and of the many parents that came, most were dads! In Oregon, parent liaison Ma'Lena Wirth wrote a letter to her parents' employers, sharing her goals for building a stronger partnership with the families and explaining that most parents couldn't attend conferences due to their work schedule. As a result, the employer agreed to give parents time off for school events if the events started after the employer's busy season. You may have get creative, but don't give up until you find what works!

Part IV: Parent Leadership and Community Partnerships

15. Encourage ELL parents to take on leadership roles

While ELL parents may be underrepresented in leadership roles, some guidance and encouragement from school leaders can go a long way in building their confidence to get more involved. It may be something small, such as soliciting ideas for school events, or it may be something bigger such as asking them to serve on a parent advisory council or speaking at a school board meeting (Meyers, 45). One district has started a program called "Bridge Parents," in which one or two parents are enlisted from each language group to serve as leaders in engaging other parents around school (Hori, 40-41). When engaging parents, be sure to have qualified interpreters available so that parents can feel comfortable communicating their ideas (and to avoid negative encounters such as that faced by a gentleman speaking in front of a recent legislative hearing in Texas).

Most importantly, don't ask for parent input until you are prepared to take it seriously. As Houk notes, "Parents should not be 'included' to rubber stamp school decisions, or to provide affirmation for school staff about decisions made with no real input" (68). The message parents send may not be what you want to hear (69) and this may require some more flexibility and cross-cultural understanding on everyone's part, but your parents know their children and community best, and they are likely to offer successful solutions to problems that the school community hadn't thought of before - especially if they represent a large number of ELL families.

16. Look for ways to make parent leadership more sustainable

Once you have a few bilingual leaders, brainstorm with your leaders about ways that the school can continue to recruit and mentor new bilingual parents. Leadership can be lost easily as students get older and transition to new schools. The mentorship piece is essential because, in these roles, you are asking bilingual parents to step up and speak up and make decisions in a cultural environment they may not fully understand — and the cycle of building trust and respect must begin again.

17. Build partnerships with the local community

Community organizations are a valuable ally in engaging ELL families, whether it's by providing key services such as interpreters and medical care or educational opportunities such as GED, ESL, and citizenship classes.

  • Offer free space: Consider offering local organizations free space in your school as a way to encourage them to bring their services closer to your families (Rodriguez, 45), and ask your families which organizations they think would make good partners for the school community.
  • Collaborate with the district: Many districts also have community education departments that provide adult ESL classes at sites throughout the district. With some initiative and creative thinking, it might be possible to partner with Community Education to provide adult learning classes/homework help onsite one evening a week.
  • Bring the community in to the school: Invite guests from the community to share important information. Try inviting the local public librarian to your school to tell parents about the public library and sign families up for library cards or inviting a local firefighter to come in and speak about fire safety. (When inviting guests from the community to the school, assure parents that identification will not be checked and explain that they do not need to show proof of legal residency to sign up for a library card.)

18. Get to know your neighbors

You may find it very productive for everyone to build a stronger relationship with your school's local neighbors! When the Extreme Makeover show came to Buffalo, NY, the students at Kevin Eberle's school took on an "extreme neighborhood clean-up" and an "extreme food drive," raking leaves for the neighbors and collecting a record-breaking 85 tons of food. Their efforts did far more to change the attitude that local residents had about their new "foreign" neighbors than any school board meeting could have done. You might also try a "craigslist" of sorts — are there items or activities that your neighbors and families can exchange? Or how about a school yard sale that raises money for a new parent center?

Perhaps you will find that the community is ready to chip in and help — and all you need to do is ask! Your neighbors may be willing to tutor or volunteer, or perhaps they have book, magazines, clothes, or household items that they are willing to donate to families. Following the 2010 Haitian earthquake, for example, the phones at Evans High in Orlando, FL began ringing off the hook and the office was filled with visitors as concerned neighbors contacted the school to find out how they could help the school's more than 600+ Haitian students and families.

Part V: Creating a Plan

19. Solicit ideas

Let's take a breath. This is a lot to think about! A good place to start in developing a new approach to family engagement is by getting feedback on staff members' and bilingual families' perceptions on the most burning needs for improving bilingual family involvement. This could be done through a survey to get initial priorities and follow up focus group conversations on selected topics. While it's not geared exclusively to ELL students, Beyond the Bake Sale, edited by Anne T. Henderson, Vivian Johnson, Karen L. Mapp, and Don Davies, offers a number of surveys and is a great place to start.

In addition, don't forget to ask the students what they think — even the young ones! What information would really help their parents? What information would they most like their parents to have? What would make school events easier for their families to attend? How might their parents be able to contribute to the school? Since ELLs often have so much responsibility in their families, they often are unusually attuned to their parents' needs and strengths, as well as their own.

Once two or three priorities are set, the school can look at the resources available and how best to proceed in implementing these approaches. A small committee of staff members, parents, and students may also be helpful in designing an action plan. Remember that no matter how many good ideas your teachers, parents, and students have, those ideas won't go very far without the support of the administration, and the "idea well" will run dry if people feel that their ideas and input aren't welcomed by school leaders.

20. Look for the funding

Perhaps the juices are starting to flow and you are excited about these ideas, but you are concerned about where the funding will come from in this tough budget climate. The good news is that, with a little bit of creativity and effort, you can fit some of these strategies into your existing structures. More importantly, though, as a school leader, you are in the position to make ELL family engagement a priority by allocating resources, no matter how limited, to make it happen.

Where to begin? Title I and Title III funding are possible options, as are family engagement grants. Numerous organizations offer small and large grants focused on family literacy and outreach — particularly around ELL, minority, Latino, and at-risk students. You may be able to enlist help in looking for those grants from your ELL staff, community partners, or a school parent with fundraising experience. Unfortunately, many times ELL educators and parents already have the ideas, but they are told that there "isn't any money" because the school leaders have not made family engagement a priority. You are in a position to make it priority, though, and once you start looking for money, you may be surprised at what you find!

Final Thoughts

You may not be able to implement all of these ideas in one, two, or even three years as you adjust to a new population in your school — and not all of these options may fit your particular population. All you have to do, however, is open the door. By setting the right tone and showing that you are committed to engaging ELL families, you will find staff members and parents coming to you with new ideas and energy that you didn't know they had — and that positive change, in turn, will benefit the entire community.

Interested in putting together English lessons for parents
Posted by: Sofia Nunez  |  April 09, 2017 11:12 PM
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