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.