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Immigrant Family Engagement in Schools

Posted By Laura Gardner , Wednesday, March 13, 2019

On the February 5, 2019, I facilitated NAFSCE’s virtual Community of Practice meeting on the topic of immigrant family engagement in schools. We had approximately 22 individuals on the call from a wide variety of districts and organizations from various locations across the United States. One large school district from the South had their entire family engagement team join. Other participants included a parent engagement coordinator from the Midwest, a family engagement specialist from a State Department of Education, and a representative from an organization in the Northeast that provides technical assistance on family engagement in special education. Furthermore, we had a civil rights lawyer who trains immigrant parents on their educational rights, a retired school counselor/author, and even the founder of Academic Parent Teacher Teams, Dr. Maria Paredes! At least two participants happened to be immigrants themselves, which contributed greatly to the discussion.


After we all introduced ourselves, our discussion was framed around 3 main questions:


  1. What are the main immigrant and refugee populations in your districts or communities?
  2. What are some of the barriers immigrant families face in engaging in their children’s education in your district or community?
  3. What is your district or organization doing to overcome those barriers?


When discussing the immigrant populations in our respective communities, some participants primarily described their Spanish-speaking/Latino population, while others described working with immigrants and refugees from all over the globe. One school district talked about how a huge percentage of their non-English speaking parents are refugees because their community is a large refugee resettlement hub.


Not long into the conversation, we launched into discussing some of the barriers immigrant families face in engaging in their children’s education. One crucial barrier mentioned is the welcoming climate in schools and communities, particularly with so much anti-immigrant rhetoric these days. One participant mentioned families in her community being harassed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and how that fear in her community extends to schools.


The second topic brought up was language barriers and the challenges related to providing interpretation and translation services. Most participants were already aware that school districts are responsible for providing parents with information in a language they understand, but it’s a huge challenge to do so. Furthermore, many are working with populations who are not literate in their native language, which necessitates a unique approach for conveying information.


The usual poverty-related barriers were also discussed, such as transportation and access to technology (and all the platforms schools use these days), but we quickly moved on to the most important barrier of all – cultural misunderstandings and expectations. Participants commented on how “parent involvement” and “family engagement” are thought of differently in many countries around the world. In so many countries, home and school are very separate and it can actually be considered rude or disrespectful if a parent visits their child’s school to ask a question.


Next, Dr. Maria Paredes, who is an immigrant from Venezuela herself, and has worked with hundreds if not thousands of immigrant families, expanded upon this idea. She described how in many countries, the accountability for a student’s success is primarily on the student and they “carry the torch.” Whereas in the United States, much of the accountability falls on the parents and teachers. So, in many cases, the “script has been flipped” and yet, rarely does anyone explain that to parents when they move to the United States! 


In our short hour together, we were not able to get too much into “solutions,” though we had Dr. Maria Paredes provide an overview of her model, Academic Parent Teacher Teams (APTT). APTT is a high-impact model that gives families concrete information on their children’s academic progress and provides them with skills, strategies, and resources to use at home with their children to reinforce targeted grade-level learning goals. APTT takes a more focused and academically oriented approach than most traditional family engagement events and initiatives.


After the official end of the virtual meeting, some of us stayed online to continue to pick Dr. Paredes’ brain. We talked about one of the biggest challenges in family engagement work is shifting hearts and minds. Sometimes it is hard to get educators to see that parents DO have the capacity to help their children and they DO care about their children’s education. The capacity-building aspect of this work is huge and involves a lot of “heavy lifting.” Dr. Paredes also talked about the importance of training educators on building relationships – how do we actually do that and what does it look like.


Other resources mentioned on the call included:

Information for Limited English Proficient (LEP) Parents and Guardians and for Schools and School Districts that Communicate with Them
Colorin Colorado’s new guide: How to Support Immigrant Students and Families: Strategies for Schools and Early Childhood Programs
EdCoaching Case Study: Engaging Immigrant Families by Family Friendly Schools
Church World Service’s work with refugees (and note:  the other national refugee resettlement agencies are located on the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement’s website here and one can also use their map to find the local affiliates in their area)
Laura Gardner’s website and email newsletter: 

It was such a great conversation on a crucial topic that we may continue the same topic next month!



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