Helping Spanish-speaking Parents Understand Our Schools
On a blustery Thursday night in early April, the Mano en Mano building – which seemed so spacious when we moved in last August – was crammed! There were 7 students in the drop-in English class packed into the lounge, 2 students studying Spanish in Robin’s office, 15 children watching a video in our upstairs classroom with our peerless Americorps member, Kristen, supervising them, a student working on his GED prep in the first floor reception room, and 22 parents plus two staff and a presenter in the conference room!
The group in the conference room, who brought the children watching the video, was attending the first session of “La conexión escolar”, a series of five information sessions for Latino parents in our community organized by The Adult Education Program (Robin Lovrien) and the Migrant Education Program (Ana Blagojevich). These sessions are offered to address the need for the parents to understand how American schools work, what their role as parents is and what the schools expect of them as parents. The Latino parents are often blocked by language and culture obstacles from understanding and communicating with the schools, so Mano en Mano decided to address this need. Sessions are held on Thursdays (and one Tuesday) from 6:30-8 PM.
So far, two of these sessions have taken place and the response has been very encouraging. Attendance was bolstered by the offer of childcare for children of any age whom parents needed to bring along.
To get the series going, Ana and Robin canvassed the teachers of Milbridge Elementary and Narraguagus High School about “three things [they] would most like the Latino parents to know about the school and how school works.” Teachers responded with ideas such as “understand the importance of reading” and “help parents know about how much after school activities help their children.”
At the first session, there were 22 parents from five schools in two different school districts, the first time so many Latino parents have sat in one room together at the same time. The teacher responses were shared and parents were asked to add their own concerns and questions. Parents added issues with getting interpretation and reliable interpreters when they go to schools, questions about how to know directly from teachers how their children are doing in school, questions about getting children into some of the after school activities and puzzlement about how much English the children were actually getting at school.
Ms. Laura Thomas, who is the ESL teacher for RSU 37 – the school district which includes Milbridge, Harrington and Cherryfield – and who is also president of the Mano en Mano Board, addressed parents the first night. Ms. Thomas stressed the primary role of parents in school functioning, telling the audience, “You have the most important voice in the school.” Also, she reminded parents that the law requires schools to provide interpreters for parents who do not speak English, and it also prohibits using a child under the age of 18 as an interpreter.
The second session provided information to parents about after school activities, including sports. Ana quoted a teacher from the high school, who observed that the students who participate in after school activities were the “most successful.” Parents were asked to discuss what they thought the teacher meant by “successful,” and they suggested that she may be referring to social and academic success stemming from increased comfort with interacting with other students.
Mr. Charlie Harrington, who administers the EdGE After School Program in Cherryfield and other locations, was able not only to give wonderful details about EdGE and all it does, but also to answer many questions from parents about transportation issues, attendance at EdGE and summer programs EdGE will offer.
Transportation in general is a barrier to the Latino young people’s participation in after school activities, so this issue was discussed frankly with parents. The concept of carpooling, a virtual given among most “American” parents, was suggested and parents discussed the possibilities of forming car pools. Other options were also suggested, with the final message being that transportation problems need to be solved if students are going to be pressured into participation in any activity outside of school hours.
Three more sessions of “La conexión escolar” are planned — two in April and one in May. The next session will address teacher-parent conferences, report cards, and use of the online progress-tracking tool schools use called “Powerschool.” Ana and Robin anticipate that a follow-up session will be offered to help parents become comfortable with Powerschool, especially those who have students in the high school where the tool is used virtually daily.
One intended outcome of these sessions will be a communication from the Latino parents to the administrators of the schools where their children attend classes. Parents will be able to express their feelings about the school and communicate directly to the schools what their most pressing concerns are.
The numbers of Latino children in the schools continues to increase every year— just on Monday, April 1, 8 new children from Latino families were registered for fall kindergarten in Milbridge alone. Mano en Mano intends to continue to support parents of these children so that they can participate as fully as possible in their children’s school lives and increase the possibility of achieving their dream of educated children.