In most Back-to-School Nights* around the country, parents walk around their child’s school and visit with their teachers. In middle and high school, parents are often asked to follow a condensed version of their child’s daily schedule. In other words, parents are going every which way throughout the evening. This can be particularly challenging for immigrant families for a number of reasons, but here we will focus on “language access.”
Language access is giving “Limited English Proficient” individuals meaningful access to programs, activities, services, and so on. It means providing individuals with interpretation and translation services so that the language barrier doesn’t prevent them from accessing information and services. Since public schools receive federal funding, all schools are required to provide interpretation and translation services to parents that need them.
In our country where 26% of all children are children of immigrants and many of our schools have dozens of languages – so what are we to do? Particularly for an event like Back-to-School Night where parents are all over the place and spread out?
There is no easy answer for this, but here are several tips. These may seem a bit “pie in the sky” for some districts with little to no support available, but pick one or two tips to get started. We all need to start somewhere!
Know the home languages of families: It is crucial to know the home languages of families in your school and NOT just the languages for parents of English Learners. You likely have students who are not English Learners, but whose parents speak another language and may need interpretation support. Per federal guidelines “School districts must develop and implement a process for determining whether parents are limited English proficient and identifying their language needs.”
Conduct equitable outreach: Based on the languages of families at your school, outreach for Back-to-School Night should be in those languages. Written flyers could be translated in the top 2-3 languages and personal calls (with the assistance of a phone interpretation company) could be made for the others. If your school uses some sort of system for robo calls, see if it is properly synced with the home language information and if messages in other languages can be recorded.
Request interpreters: Request interpreters well ahead of time, particularly if multiple schools in your district are doing Back-to-School Night on the same night. Think strategically about which languages you need and if possible, request interpreters trained in simultaneous interpretation. If your district has headsets you can borrow, request those too. (There are two main types of interpretation – simultaneous and consecutive. Simultaneous interpretation is when the interpreter is only a few words behind the speaker and typically, parents wear headset receivers. You might have Spanish on channel 1, Arabic on channel 2, and so on. Consecutive interpretation is when the presenter and interpreter go back and forth and the presentation takes twice as long.)
“Language Assistance Here” table: Wherever parents first enter the school, have a table set up with a sign that says “language assistance here” in multiple languages. All of the interpreters you requested can be gathered here and can help orient families to how the evening will go. (Even better, ask all the interpreters to wear red or another specific color so families can easily identify them throughout the evening.) If you have interpretation equipment, this is also where you can check out the headsets to families and explain to them where and when to return them.
Think through administrator greetings: If your administrator(s) typically deliver greetings or some type of presentation at the beginning of the evening, you’ll want to think this through carefully. Do they deliver greetings in-person, by video, or through the PA to each room? If the greetings are delivered in-person, such as in the gym or library before everybody disperses, it’s ideal if simultaneous interpretation and headsets are used. If the greeting is done by video or the PA, have an interpreter next to the principal so they can co-deliver the greetings using consecutive interpretation. If you have headsets, it probably will NOT work to use these when everyone is spread out because the receivers may not be able to pick up the signal across the whole school.
Think through when everyone spreads out to different classrooms:
If you have a small school with few families needing interpretation: In this situation, you can likely arrange to have interpreters accompany families to their children’s classrooms. If more than 1-2 parents in a classroom need interpretation, ideally a simultaneous interpreter would stand in the back of the classroom and parents will wear headsets. Note: if headsets are being used in multiple classrooms, they will likely need to be on a different channel in each classroom. It is highly recommended that the interpreters arrive early to test out the equipment and prepare for various arrangements.
If you have a large school with many families needing interpretation: In this situation, consider having sessions by grade or by subject. In other words, think of ways in which you can group parents. Can all of the 2nd grade parents get the same spiel? What about all parents of 9th graders taking algebra? Of course, space may be an issue, but if you are able to group parents so that they aren’t so spread out, you may be able to have an interpreter per classroom or presentation going on. This option will require buy-in from the principal and an understanding that as your school diversifies, the same way you’ve always done Back to School Night may no longer work.
Consider offering an alternative workshop for families new to the U.S. and/or your school: Sometimes, you may have families who wish to receive information that’s in their language (not through an interpreter) and/or information that’s geared specifically towards newcomers. This could be a good time to offer newcomer families an orientation on how we “do school” in the U.S. and in your school specifically. That said, you need to be careful with this. This must be optional for families and you must simultaneously provide them with equitable access to whatever the other parents are attending if that’s their preference.
Ultimately, advocate, advocate, advocate! If you work in a large school with dozens of languages spoken, there will very likely be parents who end up sitting through much of Back-to-School Night understanding very little of what’s going on. Many, if not most, will “go with the flow” and hesitate to complain because they don’t want to ruffle any feathers. However, if even one parent gets upset, listen to their concerns, validate their feelings, and then help them channel their anger and frustration into advocacy! For example, perhaps you can help the frustrated parent set up a meeting with whoever oversees family engagement or equity in your district. Perhaps they would be willing to write a letter (in their language!) to a school board member or the superintendent. Maybe they would even be willing to speak at a school board meeting during a period for public comment. Do not get upset yourself – recognize that this parent’s frustration could be a catalyst for some necessary systemic change.
*We recognize some districts call this night “Open House” or other names. For simplicity's sake, we will say “Back to School Night” here.