Imagine that a new immigrant family has moved into the neighborhood your school serves. What is already in place to make this family feel welcome? What programs does the school offer that would inspire and challenge their children? What still needs some work?
If you feel there is a lot of room for improvement in meeting the needs of your English language learner (ELL) students and their families, you're not alone! With more than 5.3 million ELLs in U.S. schools who make up roughly ten percent of the PreK-12 population (NCELA, 2011), numerous school leaders around the country are, as Buffalo principal Kevin Eberle puts it, "flying the plane while building it." It's never too late to start engaging your ELL families, however, no matter how limited or ineffective those efforts have been in the past.
Making ELL Success a Priority
School leaders are in a unique position to create a culture of success within their school community. As with other students, an important aspect of ELL success is family engagement. While you may be fortunate to have an energetic and passionate ELL teacher or bilingual liaison who has worked successfully with ELL families in the past, this is not the job of a single person. Engaging ELL families can only work if all members of the community (including administrators, staff, parents, and students) are committed to the broader mission.
The road will probably be bumpy at first and will most certainly require you to think outside of the box — the keys to your success may surprise you! In the end, though, the result is the same: parents, students, and educators working together towards a brighter future.
When you find what works for your ELL families (which may or may not be the same as what works for the ELL families at a neighboring school), you will feel as though you have won the lottery. Engaged ELL parents possess depths of dedication and wisdom regarding their children that will take your breath away. They have so much to offer — if the community is ready to embrace them and listen to what they have to say.
This is where you, as a school leader, can make important strides in changing the conversation from "What can they learn from us?" to "What can we learn from each other?"
"Parent Involvement" vs. "Parent Engagement"
In their book Building Parent Engagement in Schools, Larry Ferlazzo and Lorie Hammond explore a distinction between parent involvement and parent engagement. Parent involvement, as they define it, starts with the school: "The ideas and energy come from the schools and government mandates. Schools try to 'sell' their ideas to parents. School staff and public institutions might feel they know what the problems are and how to fix them, and determine the criteria to use in evaluating success."
Parent engagement, however, begins with the parents: "Ideas are elicited from parents by school staff in the context of developing trusting relationships. They emerge from parent/community needs and priorities. More parent energy drives the efforts (6)." This approach is more sustainable than asking your busy staff to plan numerous parent activities, take on extra responsibilities, and dig even deeper into their energy reserves (2). In addition, the more parents have the opportunity to shape activities and programs that help their families, the more invested they will be in seeing those efforts succeed.
Think of your ELL parents as a team waiting to be mobilized; while it will take some time and energy to get the team up and running (and to help them understand how valuable their contributions are), once everything is working, you will wonder how you ever got along without them!
Using This Guide
This guide offers twenty big ideas to help you create a new ELL family engagement plan. These ideas are designed to help you:
- Strengthen home-school partnerships on behalf of ELL students
- Recognize and build upon your ELL parents' strengths
- Harness the energy and ideas of staff, parents, and students in shaping those partnerships
- Mobilize and empower staff to become teacher leaders
- Engage school-wide staff members beyond the ELL/bilingual departments
- Create a culture of respect throughout the school community
- Learn how to advocate for and allocate resources on behalf of ELL families
- Encourage all participants to keep trying new, creative approaches until they find what works
- Implement the changes needed to make your new plan successful.
The ideas are organized around six major themes:
- Connecting with ELL Families
- Communicating Important Information
- Parent Participation
- Parents as Leaders
- Community Partnerships
- Creating an Action Plan
Each idea has four components:
- What you need to know: Background information and context
- Reflection: Questions about your own school setting that can be used for professional development activities with individuals or groups
- Strategies: Specific, concrete strategies targeted for an audience of PreK-12 administrators
- Examples: Stories shared by educators and administrators around the country
As you get started, we recommend that you look for the ideas that best fit your population rather than trying to absorb all of the strategies at once. You will most likely need to try different approaches in order to find what works best for your families - but the important thing is to keep trying until you do.
Note: Links to additional resources on Colorín Colorado and other ELL websites are included in each section, as well as highlighted notes and recommended resources in the appendices at the end of the guide. If you have additional ideas or resources that you would like to recommend, feel free to share them in an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org!