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  • Writer's pictureImmigrant Connections

Immigrant and English Learner Parent Advocacy

Updated: Dec 17, 2020

While the federal government outlines Schools' Civil Rights Obligations to English Learner Students and Limited English Proficient Parents, much of the time it takes significant advocacy for English Learners and their families to get all the supports in place that are needed for them to be successful.

While teachers (and likely unions) are crucial in advocacy efforts, there is a secret ingredient that is often missing from these conversations: parents. As Veronica Crespin-Palmer from RISE Colorado said, “Families are the sleeping giant…once they’re awakened to the inequities that exist, the education system will never be the same.”

Before moving on, let’s make a comparison with special education. In one of the districts I used to work in, the English Learner office (within central office) had 3-4 people in a few cubes, while nearby was the special education “hall.” There were at least 20-30 special education staff in central office and yet the populations we were serving were around the same size! One thing was very clear – the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Parents of children with special needs are often very good at advocating for their children and the results are clear as day – more staff, more resources, and so on.

Traditionally, English Learner (EL) and immigrant parents are less engaged in systemic advocacy efforts than American-born (and often white) parents. Why might that be? Take a look at the following reasons:

  • Lack of language access: Too few school districts provide information in a language parents understand, even though it’s required by federal law. Even those that do a decent job of providing interpretation and translation services often fail to translate information about the school district’s budget, school board meetings, public budget hearings, and so on.

  • Lack of leadership training: Too few school districts and/or community partners provide EL and immigrant parents with opportunities to develop their leadership skills! Take a look at Young-Chan Han’s Stages of Immigrant Parent Involvement and think through what your district and/or community partners are doing for your “cultural leaders” or to help others get to that level.

  • Discrimination: Many immigrant families - and particularly those of color - are marginalized in such a way that their message is not heard in the same way that a white, college educated parent’s message would be received. People who do not traditionally experience discrimination and racism are often able to leverage their position in society to fight for what their children deserve (and not worry about the consequences of doing so). This is extra apparent when white adoptive parents of ELs are able to change systems and supports ELs at a significantly faster pace than other parents. (See here for such an example.)

  • Lack of reassurance: Too few school districts are proactive in eliminating immigrant families’ fears related to immigration status. School districts are not allowed to ask about the immigration status of students or families and speaking to a school board member or someone in central office certainly is not going to result in a call to ICE. However, families’ fears are valid and they may need explicit reassurance that will not happen. (And ultimately, if they still decide it’s too risky, do not push them into doing something they’re not comfortable with!)

Notice how the issues are framed here? It’s not about blaming the parents! The onus is on us. In other words, what programs are in place to teach EL/immigrant parents the skills needed for this type of advocacy? Some school districts have immigrant parent leadership academies in house; for example, there are a number of them in Maryland. What is more common – and some would argue more effective – are leadership development and organizing from the outside.

Let’s take a look at some examples of immigrant parents advocating for their children in front of their school board! The students in these examples may or may not be English Learners, but in many cases, the parents are:

  • Prince George’s County Public Schools (MD) – a Spanish-speaking mother testifies about getting extra support for her child and also how language barriers have limited her ability to participate in her child’s education. Note: her testimony begins at 30:05.

  • Prince George's County Public Schools (MD) - in this video (starting at 1:31), two Spanish-speaking mothers testify talk about 1) concern about all that immigrant students are dealing with (trauma, violence, etc.) and the importance of hiring more bilingual counselors and social workers so there is good communication for dealing with complex problems; 2) stress around grade/class placement and lack of information for parents in Spanish so they can support their children; and 3) a former student with DACA speaks about how her counselor didn't know much about it or how to help her access college.

  • St. Paul Public Schools (MN) – Hmong, Karen (Burma), and other Asian parent and community leaders with the Coalition of Asian American Leaders advocate for more culturally responsive staff and ethnic studies courses. Note: their testimony begins at 13:17.

  • Aurora Public Schools (CO) – immigrant and refugee parents organized with the help of RISE Colorado and drafted a resolution to ensure that all families felt safe regardless of immigration status. The school board approved their community-led, community-written resolution.

  • Seattle Public Schools – a Spanish-speaking mom advocates for advanced classes for her children (her daughter was put in the position of interpreting, which is not best practice, but kudos to this mom for testifying!). Note: her testimony begins at 20:05.

  • Oakland Unified School District (CA) – Spanish-speaking mom who is a part of Bay Area Parent Leadership Action Network advocates for no cuts to the school budget and transparency in the budget process. Testimony in Spanish here and English here.

  • **Your example here!** Do you have an example of an immigrant or refugee parent advocating for their child? We’d love to see it! Comment below or email us.

These are all excellent examples of videos that could be shared with parents in workshops or programs designed to help them see their power and to understand where and how their voice can make a difference!

Notice how in many of the examples above there were non-profit organizations involved, organizing and supporting parents to engage in advocacy. Here are links to the organizations mentioned above as well as some others:

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