Tag Archives: English Language Learners

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.

How ESSA Title III Could Encourage Improvements for Dual Language Learners

English learners from ages 0-8, also called dual language learners (DLLs), are a growing population of students who face daunting achievement and graduation gaps. New guidance out recently from the Department of Education highlights some opportunities for pre-k through third grade system improvements for DLLs under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), specifically around how school districts may spend their funds for Title III. Title III provides approximately $760 million to states to improve instruction for English learners and immigrant students. These funds could be used to create better systems for DLLs if school districts partner with early childhood education (ECE) providers to take up some of the options in the new law and run with them.

  • Include pre-k teachers in professional development: First, ESSA specifically encourages states and districts to include preschool teachers in professional development on improving teaching skills for DLLs. This includes school-based ECE teachers, as well as Head Start teachers and community-based providers. Simply getting elementary school teachers and community-based ECE teachers in the same room is unusual, doing so while addressing the diverse needs of DLL students could be could be a big step forward.
  • Support effective language instruction across ECE: The guidance encourages school districts to make preschool language instruction part of their overall language instruction strategy, and this doesn’t only apply to on-site classrooms: school districts may sub-grant some of their Title III funds to support DLL instruction in ECE settings. While schools are rarely thrilled to give away funds, early action to support DLLs will yield dividends once those students transition into elementary schools.
  • Engage families early: ESSA adds a new Title III spending requirement: parent and family engagement. Families are young children’s most important resource for language learning and healthy development, as was reaffirmed in a joint policy statement on DLL family engagement earlier this year. Under ESSA, Title III family engagement is not limited to K-12 schools; school districts can use Title III funds to support DLL family engagement in ECE settings, and the guidance gives examples of how Title III can be used to support broader family engagement efforts.  
  • Share data effectively with ECE providers to inform improvement: School districts are required to share data and coordinate activities on DLL instruction with local Head Start agencies and other ECE providers, on topics such as standards, curricula, instruction, and assessments. The requirements on what data to share and what activities to coordinate aren’t very specific, but the aim is to create “a feedback loop that informs the improvement of programs and supports,” for DLLs. If this is done well, ECE providers could see how their DLL students are doing in elementary school, and open lines of communication could help schools and ECE providers both improve.

This is all a lot to accomplish with a limited pool of Title III funds — 71% of Title III school districts found funding for DLLs to be a moderate or major challenge according to a national evaluation published in 2012. But, with smart coordination, combining funding from other grant programs and funding streams, and improved relationships between schools and ECE providers, ESSA Title III requirements could be the nudge some school systems need to take action towards building better pre-k through third grade systems for DLLs and all young students.

Engaging Low-Income Families and Families of Color to be Architects of Education Policy

Milagros Barsallo

Milagros Barsallo

Mid-September through Mid-October marks Hispanic Heritage Month, a time dedicated to celebrate the cultures and contributions of Hispanic Americans. In September, the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics awarded 230 organizations with the title of “Bright Spots” in Hispanic Education. Bring Spots awardees have wide-ranging missions and goals, but all support Latino educational attainment and excellence.

One Bright Spots winner is RISE Colorado, a nonprofit based in Aurora, Colorado that works to provide low-income families and families of color with the knowledge, skills, and resources to identify and work on issues they feel are necessary to create educational equity in the public school system. Founded in May 2012, and currently led by Milagros Barsallo and Veronica Palmer, RISE Colorado has educated 1,070 families of 1,914 school-aged children about the opportunity gap and worked with these families to organize campaigns and assume decision-making positions at school and district levels.

Veronica Palmer

Veronica Palmer

RISE Colorado is flipping parent advocacy on its head with a community-focused model of organizing. Barsallo and Palmer’s journey as young, Latina women entrepreneurs breaking the mold in a crowded advocacy space has not been an easy one, but their victories thus far and the passion of the families they work with fuel their desire to push forward. I spoke to Barsallo and Palmer over the phone to learn about the impact RISE is making in Colorado since its founding, the policy areas of most interest to the families they work with, the progress they’ve made, and the challenges they face.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation. 

Kaitlin Pennington: There are a lot of advocacy organizations in education. Some may even argue that there are also several parent advocacy organizations in education. What space is RISE filling?

Milagros Barsallo: In our landscape in Colorado, but also in the national landscape of family engagement, what we see are two different types of opportunities for families to get involved in the school system. On the one hand, we see opportunities for learning either through a liaison in schools or an educational organization that might provide workshops for parents. For the most part, families are not being offered big picture information that the rest of us have about the opportunity gap or opportunities tied to action. On the flip side, we’re also seeing a lot of opportunities that involve action, like opportunities for families to write to their legislators or get involved in testimony for policies. In these situations, low-income families and families of color are asked to get involved in the 11th hour after somebody else has made the decision about what’s best for their communities, and they are not part of that decision-making process. RISE was founded to fill that gap.

Veronica Palmer: Our families are architects of policy, not objects of policy. We have a theory of change that is also very different from other organizations. We believe that those most impacted by the inequity that exists must lead the movement for themselves. Women led the suffrage movement, Cesar Chavez and farmworkers led the farmworkers movement and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and African Americans led the civil rights movement. Who is most impacted by educational inequity? Low-income families and families of color, therefore they must be the ones to lead the movement in order for us to ever truly achieve educational equity.

Pennington: RISE educates, engages and empowers parents. What does this look like?

Barsallo: We created our model to meet families where they’re at. First, we educate them about the opportunity gap that their kids are facing through workshops that we do in collaboration with schools and community partners. Then we engage them and teach them how to organize and take on the campaigns they want to take on and offer solutions that they think will improve academic achievement. Then we empower them to seek elected or appointed leadership at school or district levels so that they can actually implement those changes and see academic achievement improve for low-income children and children of color.

Palmer: We actually don’t see ourselves as an advocacy organization because the definition of advocacy itself is doing something on behalf of somebody else. Our model is that we don’t do anything for our families that they can’t do for themselves. We believe that they can change the system themselves with the right knowledge, opportunities, and supports. We see ourselves as a family engagement organization that empowers families to rise up to be change agents to create the systemic change we need in education.

Pennington: Can you talk about how you identify the communities you work with? Continue reading