Working Alongside Parents To Support a Child’s Education

By: Gabriela González del Real

Gabriela Gonzalez del Real Blog Image

As a middle school English teacher at an urban charter school, I work hard to push my students to make academic and emotional growth. My co-workers and I have been successful in pushing students to attain higher than average growth on state tests, reading inventories, and other markers of academic success. However, I know that students are not successful based on the efforts of teaching alone. In order for our students to be successful, they need to be supported by their community as a whole including teachers, school staff, and their families. As educators, we have a responsibility to continue to find ways to support our students and families and work alongside them. An ongoing question I’ve been contemplating is: How can I develop stronger relationships with Latinx parents to ensure we are working together to best support their child’s education?

At our most recent report card conference, parents were invited to sign up online for appointments between 12:30 and 2:00 pm and 4:30 and 7:00 pm. Parents were also able to drop in and make an appointment during either of those times. Of the ten to twelve parents I met with, three were Spanish-speaking, but only one was provided a translator from the school.

As a native Spanish speaker, I was able to engage in critical conversations about work habits, comprehension, and their child’s  progress in 8th Grade English/Language Arts. However, other Spanish-speaking parents were not able to have in-depth conversations because of language difficulties. In overhearing other conversations with teachers, I witnessed parents muddling through conversations while my co-workers tried to explain their child’s progress in basic terms. At the end of the evening, I left feeling frustrated.

I was frustrated for a few reasons. First, we teach more than three students whose families speak Spanish at home and I was concerned because their parents did not attend the conference. Second, why was there only one translator available? Third, how should I work alongside my team to ensure we are finding ways to engage Spanish-speaking parents?

In reflecting  about my first frustration, I have to infer that part of the reason more parents did not attend was due to parent communication and outreach. In our parent contact logs, I noticed significantly less entries in Spanish-speaking households compared to students whose parents are native English speakers. Many of the entries in the communication log were limited to unreturned voicemails or introductory phone calls at the beginning of the year. Meanwhile, other students’ communication logs were replete with positive phone calls, academic or behavioral calls, and check-in calls.

It wouldn’t be acceptable for a teacher to ignore five students in a classroom, and yet it appears we have been unintentionally ignoring five families in parent outreach.

But why aren’t our Spanish speaking families getting contacted? I believe some of the issues may be due to language gaps. Amongst the twenty middle school staff at my school, I am the only Latinx teacher and the only native Spanish speaker teaching a core subject. We have a few teachers who speak enough Spanish to translate or engage in basic conversations but collectively as a community of people who care about our students, are we doing enough to bring in more Spanish-speaking families into parent-teacher conferences? Probably not.

For the Spanish-speaking families who attended the conference, why weren’t more translators available? Or why weren’t translators advertised in the communication about setting up appointments for the conference?

I can’t help but wonder how many parents didn’t attend because they worried they would be unable to effectively communicate with their child’s teachers. But what did make a difference? The one parent with a translator was encouraged to come in by our family outreach coordinator. She had a personal connection with the parent and made sure to make her feel comfortable going around to her child’s teachers.

Across other sectors, it is  clear this is not just an issue in education. According to a
survey conducted by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research in the spring of 2018, “nearly 6 in 10 [Latinx] adults have had a difficult time communicating with a health care provider because of a language or cultural barrier.”

If Latinx adults have a hard time communicating about something as vital as healthcare, we can assume that the same is true for communication about their child’s education. As graduation requirements change, college application procedures evolve, and the digitization of schooling increases; barriers to family-school communication only further weaken attempts to close the historical “achievement gap.”

In reflecting upon this experience, I was reminded of situations where parents were either ill-informed about resources and programs provided by the school, or did not have access to information in their home language.There is no denying the importance of family communication and engagement in helping to encourage and support student growth. Yet, as our Latinx student population continues to grow, parent engagement with schools remains low. According to a study conducted by the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute, “[Latinx] parents reported that communication activities with schools were impersonal, infrequent, and without adequate notice. [Existing communications] were described as providing little or no personal contact with school officials or teachers.”

For school communities looking to engage Spanish-speaking families, there are a few things we can do to create a more welcoming environment.

One recommendation is to provide more translated materials. Most of the “official” notices get translated, but what about the other non-critical dispatches? School communities should strive to increase the translation of notices, letters, permission slips, and other newsletters. In the middle school, we have started sending weekly newsletters via email with a translated version after the English version. This is a promising start but I still wonder how many of our Spanish-speaking families are reading them.

Beyond sending home translated materials, families should have access to a variety of teachers with whom they can speak comfortably in their native language. It is absurd that a small number of staff members are able to effectively communicate with over twenty families. Rather than having one person who owns all communication, schools should actively recruit and hire more bilingual teachers and staff who can communicate with students and families. If parents are able to have a more genuine and personal connection with teachers and staff, they might be more comfortable to engage with the school community.

One suggestion for attracting bilingual staff is to increase their compensation. Teachers with higher degrees receive salary incentives due to the increased content knowledge that they bring to the school. Shouldn’t bilingual teachers and staff receive a similar incentive for the language skills they bring to the school? I’m encouraged that my school and other charter schools are starting to think about offering increases in pay for bilingualism, but this should be a priority in all schools and districts.

At the end of the parent-teacher conference, I spoke with our outreach coordinator about the low attendance of our Latinx families. She shared my concern and was receptive to ideas about making more targeted phone calls to our Latinx families, advertising more effectively, and providing translators in the future. Though it feels like progress has been made at my school, it is clear that this is not something the two of us can solve on our own. As a school community, we need to continue to work together to make parent involvement and engagement more of a priority.

As our Latinx student populations continue to grow in Boston, schools need to be moving urgently to create bridges between families and schools.

Some might argue that school budgets are already slashed, so schools are not capable of providing extra resources. While it is true many schools are facing budget troubles, it does not mean districts and states should not be working to find solutions to bridge schools and all families.

Whether it’s investing in better communication systems with parents, hiring more bilingual staff, or shifting communication priorities; schools should be continuously working to become more inclusive and welcoming. After all, a student is only as successful as the team working alongside them.


About Gabriela González del Real
Originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico, Gabriela González del Real is an 8th Grade English Language Arts Teacher in Dorchester, Massachusetts. She has spent the last eight years teaching middle school English in charter schools in Lynn and Boston.