Nielson: Parents Are Key to Success for English Learners. Here’s How Some Districts Are Helping Immigrant Families Engage With Their Kids’ Schools

Mustafa Jama (center) works in an English class at the Seward County Community College adult education center in Liberal, Ks. (Christopher Smith/ For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

It’s difficult to know the precise number of undocumented workers in the U.S., since so many work hard to go unnoticed. The Pew Research Center estimates the number at about 8 million. They are day laborers, agricultural workers, landscapers, nannies, housekeepers, trash collectors, painters, construction workers, kitchen staff, and more. And just like the millions of immigrants who have come before them, undocumented workers are here in search of a better life — one of greater safety, opportunity, and liberty than that which they left behind.

But the road to that better life is rarely straightforward. Many endure unspeakable hardship just to make the physical journey to this country. Once they’ve arrived, they fill jobs few citizens want — working without benefits and risking injury, arrest, and deportation. They endure these conditions because of their belief in, and commitment to, a brighter future and better educational opportunities for their children.

Yet for many, those opportunities remain inaccessible. Our schools enroll an estimated 1 million undocumented children and many more American-born children of undocumented parents. They are among the 1 in 10 K-12 students who are English learners. Sadly, while many become fluent in both English and their heritage language, just 63 percent of English learners graduate from high school, and most do not go on to college. They are the most underrepresented group in gifted education programs.

These outcomes by no means reflect a lack of intellectual capacity or potential. Like any student group with additional needs, English learners can achieve academically with access to sufficient resources and supports. However, for them, there is an added barrier that makes it even more difficult to take advantage of the sometimes limited resources and supports that are available: the English learner status of their parents.

We know that parental and family engagement can be integral to student success. School and parent partnerships can improve students’ motivation and school participation, emotional well-being, and academic performance. But children of English learner parents cannot benefit if a language barrier separates their mom and dad from school staff. Schools may have a bilingual staff member facilitating critical communications, but the most sustainable path to strengthening the critical partnership between schools and English learner parents is to support parents’ language acquisition.

At present, many parents do not learn English because they lack an effective pathway to language acquisition. Learning a second language is difficult and time-intensive, and the instruction offered to adults is typically one-size-fits-all and not particularly effective. Even these options are inaccessible to many working parents, who struggle to fund and find the child care they need to attend evening and in-person classes. There is no national system to teach English to adults; classes are offered in church basements, community centers, and public libraries. Waiting lists are not uncommon. Curricula draw upon outdated approaches that fail to reflect the sort of hands-on, individualized learning we know is most effective for adult learners. Instructors are often well-meaning but inexperienced and undertrained volunteers.

The good news is that we know how to teach people effectively, and building a successful national program to help adult immigrants learn English is not outside our reach. A handful of home-grown programs exist in places like Prince George’s County, Maryland, and Piscataway, New Jersey, where parents attend evening or weekend classes in their children’s schools. Miami-Dade has a countywide parent academy that taps the potential of technology to solve problems of space and time as it provides training to district families.

Programs like these are taking on the myth that immigrant parents are disengaged from education — or simply don’t want to learn English. Having spent 20 years working with immigrants in one capacity or another, from volunteer English teacher in an apple orchard to assistant professor at a community college, I have yet to meet someone who isn’t interested in speaking English. That experience is supported by evidence: Surveys suggest that one of the top reasons parents give for wanting to learn English is to be able to communicate with their children’s teachers and help them with school.

Providing access to high-quality and effective English learning opportunities can be a game changer for families and students. When we remove English as an obstacle, we can make our schools accessible to both English learner parents and students, facilitating critical school and family partnerships, and creating communities within and around our schools that reflect the very best of our democratic promise.

Katharine B. Nielson, Ph.D., is a former English as a Second Language teacher and now chief education officer at Voxy, an English language learning web and mobile platform.

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