September 19, 2017

Assets, Not Barriers: 5 Ways Teachers Can Connect With and Empower Families Across Language Barriers

This week, Bellwether staff share their perspectives on family and parent engagement. Follow Ahead of the Heard from now until Friday for a series of blog posts that tackle common misconceptions about engaged parents, working with multilingual families, and more. Click here to read other posts in the series thus far.

 

We know that parent engagement makes a difference. Students whose family members are involved in their education, regardless of their background or income, have better attendance, higher grades, and more rigorous course schedules.

But what if a language barrier keeps schools from fully connecting with parents and families?  English Language Learners are the fastest growing segment of the student population — in 2014, 11.8 million students spoke a language other than English at home. It’s imperative for schools and teachers to collaborate in support of students and families across languages. Not only that, but embracing and encouraging multiple languages and cultures (in the classroom) can be an educational asset. In order to get there, teachers must be willing to engage.

Christian Martínez-Canchola, photo via author

I spoke with my friend and former colleague, Christian Martínez-Canchola, about the best strategies teachers can employ to connect across language barriers. Christian currently serves as the Primary Years Programme Dean at Uplift Grand Preparatory in Dallas, Texas. As a classroom teacher, Christian led her bilingual students to outstanding outcomes — they consistently outperformed district averages by 30-point margins on district, state, and national assessments.

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, Christian suggests five ways teachers — regardless of their language abilities — can engage multilingual families and communities in a partnership for student success:

  1. Establish trust: Speaking in a language you aren’t comfortable with is a vulnerable experience; building a trusting relationship with students and families should be one of a teacher’s first priorities. To foster this, Christian is a proponent of starting the year off with a bilingual parent survey. The outreach effort signals immediate investment to parents, and allows teachers an early look into their students’ lives. Questions range from basic contact information, to more personal inquiries. “I ask parents to describe their child’s strengths, their weaknesses, what they want to be when they grow up,” says Christian. “These are the people who know their children best.”
  2. Listen and then act: It can be easy for teachers and school staff to make well-intentioned assumptions even without a language barrier — when communication is challenging, the danger for misdiagnosis intensifies. Make conscious contact with parents and community members to identify needs.“There are always parents talking to one another. Leverage conversations with those key stakeholders — you may think parents would benefit most from a car seat drive, but in reality, they may need assistance calling the electric company or accessing dental care instead.”
  3. Redefine what engagement looks like: A narrow definition of family engagement can lead otherwise interested parents to count themselves out. Says Christian, “the parents who typically volunteer in classrooms can afford the time. For most parents though, that’s a privilege. I found that there was this misconception that parents had to physically be in the school to help, when that wasn’t the case at all.” Family members, regardless of language, can assist teachers in other ways. Classroom support can happen at home, from cutting out math manipulatives to assembling packets and leveled books. Christian adds: “Parents want to be involved. Even something small, like sending home classroom materials to be cut out, allows them to have a role in the success of their kids.”
  4. Prioritize intentionality and structure: Home visits and back-to-school nights can provide opportunities to establish trust and build partnerships. At the same time, Christian stresses the importance of planning these interactions and of not allowing them to be too ad-hoc. “If they’re intentional, [home visits] can be really impactful, but they lose all power when flimsily done,” she says. “I like when they’re structured, when schools or even outside agencies provide [teachers with] training on their actual impact and the logistical needs a bilingual home visit requires.”
  5. Empower teachers with existing resources: Districts and school leaders can connect their teaching staff with free and low-cost tools to make translation easier. Many large districts, including District of Columbia Public Schools, New York City Department of Education, and Dallas Independent School District, have translation hotlines, where teachers can reach interpreters and teams dedicated to translating documents. In addition, the Google Translate app has text translation for over 100 languages, and can translate bilingual conversations for 32 others. While not a true replacement for face-to-face translation, these tools can serve as a point of entry.


Christian’s work is fueled by a fervent desire to exemplify the strength and power of her students and their families. As one of the few Latinx and bilingual school leaders in her network, Christian says she is passionate about building a pipeline of educators who both reflect the communities that they serve and driving transformational, sustainable change. We can borrow lessons from her work empowering teachers to connect across lines of differences in the pursuit of positive outcomes for all children.


Silenced But Not Complacent: Limited English Proficient Parents

This week, Bellwether staff share their perspectives on family and parent engagement. Follow Ahead of the Heard from now until Friday for a series of blog posts that tackle common misconceptions about engaged parents, working with multilingual families, and more. Click here to read other posts in the series thus far.

Parents and advocates at the June 2016 Fresno AAPI stakeholder engagement session. Photo courtesy of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center.

Plenty of research demonstrates improved student outcomes from robust parent engagement, yet not enough has been done to make sure that limited English proficient (LEP) parents are engaged.

In June 2016, I helped coordinate a series of stakeholder engagement sessions for Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) parents and advocates in Sacramento, Fresno, and Long Beach, CA. I was a Civil Rights Fellow at OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates working on K-12 education issues, and the sessions were designed to allow parents and advocates to tell state and local education agency officials their major concerns around engaging with teachers and schools.

Many of the people we spoke to were limited English Proficient (LEP). In fact, there are an estimated 4.6 million students in the U.S. who are LEP. Among the 8.3 million Americans aged five or older who speak an Asian or Pacific Island language, approximately one in three are LEP. Coupled with difficulties in communicating and engaging with schools, the LEP population is less educated and more likely to live in poverty.

Attendees of the stakeholder engagement sessions identified with refugee backgrounds, were low-income, and spoke a variety of different languages at home, including Khmer (Cambodian), Hmong, and Vietnamese. Here’s what we learned:

When local leaders do not reflect the communities they serve, they may overlook specific language needs. In Long Beach, CA, the school board was unaware of the need for language interpreters in Khmer (Cambodian), and as a result, Khmer-speaking parents were unable to effectively engage with teachers and schools. School robo-calls and important paperwork sent home with students were only available in English or Spanish. These barriers persisted due to lack of diversity and representation on school boards and other levels of school leadership.

Community liaisons are important resources, but they are not prioritized in district budgets. Community liaisons can act as a bridge between schools and LEP parents. Liaisons assist students, staff, teachers, and community members by providing and conveying important information on school resources and programs while also gathering input to address student and parent needs. For immigrant families, community liaisons provide culturally competent services, and may also act as translators. However, at these stakeholder convenings, parents expressed that the number of community liaisons had been downsized due to budget cuts, leaving the district with only 2-3 liaisons. As a result, LEP parents had limited access to the information schools provided.

Limited translated materials make it nearly impossible to navigate the college application process. When the time comes for students to transition to higher education, LEP parents are limited in their ability to help with the college application process, much less to navigate the complex systems of financial aid. Currently, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) has only been translated into Spanish, preventing a number of first-generation students from successfully completing the application and receiving federal financial aid.

Immigrant students are legally entitled to equal educational opportunities, but failing to provide the translation and interpretation services shuts students and their families out from those opportunities. As a result, the cycle of exclusion from resources and services vital to student success continues, leading first-generation immigrant students to face higher barriers to entry when pursuing higher education. Furthermore, when such language and cultural obstacles exist, parental engagement tends to become focused on resolving the issues students experience rather than preventing these issues from occurring in the first place.

The number of parents and students affected by poor LEP parental engagement are significant, yet there are not a lot of schools that actively address these barriers. Schools and teachers looking to meaningfully engage with LEP parents can consult the U.S. Department of Education’s English Learner Toolkit and Teaching Tolerance.


September 18, 2017

Can You Name the Branches of Government? Most Americans Can’t.

Today is Constitution Day, a holiday commemorating the formation and signing of the U.S. Constitution on September 17, 1787 — 230 years ago. As “a nation of immigrants,” America’s national identity is largely tied to our founding documents, endowing the Constitution with a unique importance in American culture. However, many Americans know little about this document that we are supposed to support and defend.

Last week, the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) of the University of Pennsylvania released its Constitution Day Civics Survey, with dismal results. Only one in four respondents were able to name all three branches of government, a 12-point decline since 2011. Shockingly, 33 percent could not name a single branch.

The survey also asked respondents to identify which rights are guaranteed by the First Amendment. While nearly half (48 percent) were able to name “freedom of speech,” only 15 percent could name “freedom of religion.” Even fewer respondents identified the other rights (freedom of the press, right to petition, and right of assembly). Thirty-seven percent couldn’t name any.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of APPC, expressed her concern: “Protecting the rights guaranteed by the Constitution presupposes that we know what they are. The fact that many don’t is worrisome.”

Perhaps, in prior years, this warning may have seemed overblown. But in the Trump era, amid a seemingly constant slew of anti-democratic rhetoric, it feels right on the nose. For example, when asked whether those who are in the country illegally have any rights under the Constitution, 53 percent of APPC’s respondents disagreed. In this context of widespread ignorance and misinformation, the United States has seen an uptick in hate crimes associated with the rise of President Trump, beginning in 2015, persisting into 2016 and 2017, and culminating in the violence of the “Unite the Right” rally of white nationalists in Charlottesville last month.

Luckily, some states are taking action to bolster the civic knowledge of their students. For example, over the past three years, 17 states have adopted a “citizenship test” requirement for high school students. In eight of those states, students must receive a passing score on the test to receive a high school diploma. The questions are drawn from the the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) naturalization civics test, which immigrants must pass to become legal U.S. citizens.

This is a good first step, but it is far from sufficient. The test is not designed to be a high school civic literacy exam. It sets a low bar, with basic multiple-choice questions that ask test-takers to identify one branch of the government, or know how many amendments have been made to the Constitution. The simplicity is reflected in the initial test results, with very high passage rates and few students failing to pass the test after repeated attempts.

However, such a test is only one tool available to policymakers. They can design and administer higher quality civics assessments; implement robust standards and curricula for civics instruction; and provide real-world, project-based opportunities for students to learn about government and civic engagement. For example, New Hampshire passed legislation in 2016 requiring a civics test. But, rather than simply implementing a citizenship test for high school students, the legislation allows for the creation of locally developed assessments that can include a broader range of questions. Additionally, the state created a recognition for students who pass the required test by authorizing school districts to issue civic competency certificates.

New Hampshire Senator Lou D’Allesandro, a former civics teacher who sponsored some of the state’s legislation, summarized the issue well: “We always complain, ‘people don’t know anything about the system, they don’t get involved, they don’t vote.’ Well, they don’t vote because they don’t understand the importance of voting and how meaningful it is to participate in the process.”

If America wants to protect our constitutional rights and democratic ideals, we must ensure that our next generation of citizens are knowledgeable and engaged. That starts in the classroom.


September 14, 2017

How Teacher Turnover Hurt Improvement Efforts in These Minnesota Schools

This is first in a series of blog posts and resources to offer lessons and reflections for school leaders, district officials, and education policymakers using data and stories from the McKnight Foundation Pathway Schools Initiative. The series is supported by a grant from the McKnight Foundation.

As students come back to school this fall, many will find teachers and principals they’ve never seen before. About 16 percent of teachers leave the profession or change schools every year, and that number is even higher in high-poverty schools, urban schools, and low-performing schools.

How does teacher turnover affect students and schools? The research is not always clear. Several studies in urban districts show a general negative association between turnover and student achievement. One study found negative teacher turnover effects spread even to students with veteran teachers, suggesting turnover can impact schoolwide achievement and morale. But a certain amount of turnover is inevitable, and in some cases, staff changes can improve student scores by exiting ineffective teachers or allowing teachers to take on new leadership roles in schools.

The experience of the Pathway Schools Initiative, a seven-year effort to improve third grade literacy in seven Minnesota elementary schools, sheds further light on how turnover can hurt the momentum of school improvement efforts. With the support of the McKnight Foundation, schools participating in the initiative worked with the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute (UEI) to implement PreK-3rd improvement efforts.

All seven Pathway schools were urban (located in the Twin Cities metropolitan area), relatively low performing, and predominantly low-income. But rates of teacher turnover varied widely between schools and from year to year. The graph below shows the differences in PreK-3rd grade teacher turnover among four participating schools over a two-year period.

Ultimately, schools in the Initiative struggled to make significant progress in improving PreK-3rd grade instruction and literacy outcomes. An independent evaluation conducted by SRI International identified teacher turnover as one of the major challenges, among many, facing schools in their professional development and instructional change efforts. Evaluators also found some cases where newly hired teachers were associated with lower student performance, but results were inconsistent by school and by year.[1] Overall, professional development was a huge component of the initiative, and when large numbers of teachers left, that institutional knowledge and investment left too. As one teacher told evaluators, “We’ve had so much turnover among the staff that we’re reinventing the wheel every year.”

Data collected by SRI International, from SRI 2016-17 Pathway Schools Initiative Annual Report. Note: Data were not available in this time period for every school in the Initiative.

School improvement efforts like the Pathway Schools Initiative, which focused on assessment, instruction, and professional development, need a certain level of stability to succeed. But chronic educator turnover in high-need schools should not be viewed as an inevitable reality. In blogs to come in this series, we’ll continue digging into data and stories from these schools to look at the impacts of teacher and leader turnover and examine potential action steps schools, districts, and states can take to ensure turnover is not a roadblock to school improvement.

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[1] Schmidt, R.A., Chen, W., Torre, D., Woodworth, K., and Golan, S. (2017, April). The Role of Student and School Characteristics in Predicting Early Literacy Gains. Poster Presentation at the annual conference of the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD), Austin, TX, and Pathway Schools Initiative Phase 1 Case Study


September 8, 2017

In Light of DACA Repeal, What Can Educators Do Now?

Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/peoplesworld/6649238679/in/photolist-b8z61c-4RQmyt-9Cyku1-9CvmU4-datE3o-dEusfL-buDiFk-4FQ457-4FQjJw-c1eLxL-hCp4i-8V26FA-c1ELVw-d9GmjA-kW5Dg-H3zvXa-d9Gm7K-hCoTs-8xVpix-v2QfRK-RxuMq5-c1ELJq-hCoKv-8xVqaD-natkW8-8xYrrs-hCopC-8xYr4L-9MyCEe-aDbMLz-dA61aW-4Ro7WA-d9Uw88-c1EMUQ-buDd7Z-bAHAhP-bNkhN8-9Cvr14-bQCmSK-buDigr-8xcrkt-buDfRD-pPPJ8L-bzqvx7-4FKUST-buDmhP-8LHuxQ-buDhTg-d9UuaV-hCr29

An Immigrant Youth Justice League rally in 2011. Photo via Flickr user peoplesworld.

Having immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines at four years old, I know firsthand the difficult decision my parents made to leave behind the country they called home in search of opportunity for my family. Although I have family abroad, this country is the only place I know as home.

Recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) were brought to the U.S. as young children by parents who made the courageous decision to leave the only home they knew, often due to danger, conflict, poverty, or a lack of opportunity. While my immigration story is different, I can’t help but feel connected to the 800,000 DACA recipients whose only chance of hope and a future in this country was abruptly taken away from them this week.

In the wake of DACA repeal, I sought advice from Mayura Iyer, a Teach For America corps member teaching in Dallas, TX. Mayura’s main priority is to control the one thing she can in this moment – to make her immigrant students feel as safe and welcome as possible in her classroom. Every educator has this opportunity and responsibility, and below are some resources and suggestions Mayura offered to continue supporting immigrant students in her classroom:

Make sure students and their parents know their rights. Provide students with materials they can share with parents, particularly in-language translated materials, such as those from Remezcla and Here to Stay. Have these materials readily available in the classroom to allow the students to pick up on their own time – if and when they’re ready.

In addition, it’s important to clarify any misconceptions and myths that students hear on a daily basis. For instance, many undocumented families may fear that immigration authorities are present in schools and that undocumented students may be vulnerable to deportation at school. Clarify your school or district’s policy to protect immigrant students (see, for example, the National Education Association’s “Safe Zones” resolutions policies or Virginia’s guidance regarding school division responsibilities and actions in reference to students and immigration) and ensure students and parents know that school is a safe environment for them.

Uplift and value the experiences of immigrants and students of color. Celeste Hayes’ “How to Decolonize a Classroom” addresses the whitewashing of narratives about people of color in history. Teachers can actively uplift the stories and voices of immigrants and people of color by being intentional about the historical figures they post on their classroom walls or the projects they assign to their students.

Incorporate cultural competency in lessons. Teach Tolerance offers a number of instructional resources on diversity, identity, and social justice that teachers can use to help facilitate difficult conversations on topics such as race, immigration, and inclusion. No matter how difficult, these discussions are vital to creating a welcoming environment for all students, particularly during these uncertain times. While conversations about immigration and inclusion may seem most relevant to classrooms with large immigrant populations or students of color, it is equally if not more important to make sure these conversations take place in schools with small minority populations. Students take these discussions outside of the classroom and to their homes, and if we’re trying to make our country a more immigrant-friendly place, then teachers must make a conscious effort to create such environments in their classrooms.

DACA recipients are among our students, teachers, friends, and neighbors, all of whom are inextricably woven into the fabric of America. Repealing this executive order, with no guarantee from Congress that timely legislation will pass before it expires, is irresponsible and inhumane. In the meantime, educators play an important role in ensuring that immigrant students feel like they belong in the classroom — and in this country.