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Paving the way toward greater parent engagement

Marta Burnet

Marta Burnet

By Marta Burnet

How can I help my child do better in school?

That’s a question many of us grapple with as parents—and one that was raised at a recent Spanish curriculum night offered at Apollo Elementary School in Renton. It’s a question that becomes even more daunting for parents who do not speak English.

Taking action to help your own children does not, however, need to be insurmountable. That’s why the Apollo PTA has spent the last year-plus finding ways to overcome barriers for these families and welcome their involvement in their children’s education.

As a part of our PTA goal of broadening family involvement, we devised three objectives:

  1. Increase native language (L1) materials available to non-native-English-speaking families.
  2. Make L1 resources about Apollo available.
  3. Engage families, so that we can answer questions, spread resources, and get feedback.

While Apollo students speak 16 languages at home, 63 percent of them speak Chinese, Spanish, or Vietnamese, so we chose to concentrate our efforts initially on those.

If parents cannot read English, then they are limited in their ability to support their children’s English literacy development. But many research studies provide strong evidence in favor of developing native language literacy skills, which then transfer into English literacy.

By increasing the L1 materials available in the library, the ELL instructor and teachers can make use of these materials and encourage students to take them home to use. The PTA granted $1150 to purchase 77 books in our three most common languages (Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, and Vietnamese). We also made Spanish books available through our online reading curriculum. Our intention is to continue to build our L1 library in future years.

Our second objective stemmed from our desire to help non-English-speaking families better understand our school system and the PTA. By translating key school and PTA documents, we created pathways toward greater engagement. Community and family engagement is a key component of improving school performance.

The PTA gave a $550 grant to translate the Apollo handbook into Spanish, and we recruited volunteers to translate the Apollo PTA mission and letters sent home to families into Chinese, Korean, Romanian, Spanish, and Vietnamese. We also located useful resources from state and education organizations in multiple languages that we linked on our website, and we set up Google Translate for our website. Teachers also reminded families about the translation service available for conversations with them. And finally, we distributed a survey to all Spanish-speaking families to learn how they feel about their relationship with Apollo and its PTA.

Our third objective has been particularly rewarding. Last year, we recruited volunteer Bilingual Ambassadors to call families, let them know about resources, answer questions, and identify needs and interests within these communities. This provided us with good information to lead to future steps for this year, including the recent inaugural Spanish curriculum night.

To get the word out about the curriculum night, we sent home flyers in Spanish and called all Spanish-speaking families to encourage them to attend. While we had no idea how many people would attend, we were thrilled to see about 75 people show up—about two-thirds of our Spanish-speaking families!

The PTA sponsored the dinner, the school gave away bilingual books, and we answered questions about the school and PTA. Then we took parents to the computer lab to show them how to use the Issaquah School District online portal for families so that they could register for conferences, get report cards, and find other information about their children’s education. Our principal was supportive and agreed to put a computer in the school office for future parental use and offer another Spanish-language computer class in the future in order to help families access our reading and math curriculum and anything else they might need to support their kids.

It was such a wonderful night. The parents really appreciated it and the kids were so proud to introduce their parents to teachers, the librarian, and the principal. I think we went a long way toward laying the groundwork for future engagement and involvement. By the end of the evening, parents were asking about volunteer opportunities and reading to their kids in Spanish—things we know can make a difference in their children’s academic success.

This entire project has really been a team effort on the part of the PTA and the school principal, and that teamwork was a key to its success. While it does take time, and in some cases, money, I am confident our work will make a difference and can be replicated elsewhere. If it helps even just one or two families become involved in their children’s education, I believe it was worth it.

Marta Burnet is Apollo PTA Co-President and Chair of the committee that conducted this work. She is also a PhD Candidate at the University of Washington in the College of Education’s Educational Leadership and Policy Studies program, where she focuses on state- and district-level policies that impact English Language Learners. She would love to see other schools replicate this effort and/or learn more about what other schools are doing in this regard. You can contact her at martamikkelsenpta@gmail.com.

Posted in: Advocacy and Activism, Blog, Closing the Gaps

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