Separate or Together: Unpacking the “EL Family Event” vs. “All-School Family Event” Debate
Updated: Dec 17, 2020
One of the most common questions that comes up in the world of immigrant/English Learner (EL) family engagement is whether one should have separate events for EL parents or just continue with all-school events and encourage EL/immigrant families to attend those.
This is not an either/or situation. The simple answer is this: you need to do both. I’ve always told teams I’ve worked with that our responsibility is to 1) Facilitate initiatives that specifically cater to the unique needs of EL/immigrant families AND 2) to make sure all EL/immigrant families have equal access to every opportunity in the school district through providing interpretation/translation services and whatever else they need for equal access.
In fact, not only are both approaches recommended, but they are required. In regards to number one above, both Title I and Title III require regular meetings for EL parents. As for number two, providing EL/immigrant parents with equal access to information is a civil rights mandate (see Information for Limited English Proficient Parents and Guardians and for Schools and School Districts that Communicate with Them).
Here are some of the benefits of offering initiatives that are unique for EL/immigrant families:
Unique needs: EL/immigrant families often have unique needs. For example, they typically need a fairly comprehensive orientation to how we “do school” in the U.S. and information on how things work in our particular school or district. This often includes basic information. For example, newly-arrived immigrant parents may not know school buses are yellow or what an “A” means and they deserve to have this information explained. With parents having such busy schedules and limited time, American-born parents may become frustrated sitting through such information, so it’s best to share this type of information at events that are specifically for EL/immigrant parents.
Facilitated in the home language: Occasionally, it is beneficial to run EL/immigrant parent events in the home language without interpreters. For example, perhaps you have a Spanish-speaking (or Mandarin-speaking, etc.) parent liaison who can facilitate a workshop. Have you ever sat through an entire workshop or event with the help of an interpreter? It can be exhausting and some of the content is lost. It is also hard to find the right time to jump in and express oneself or ask a question. It can be a relief to occasionally participate in an event in one’s native language!
Fear: Unfortunately, anti-immigrant rhetoric is very high in the U.S. today and many immigrants avoid government institutions, including schools. Convincing immigrant parents to visit their children’s school sometimes requires a special effort and messaging around schools being safe places. On top of anxiety related to immigration, it can take a lot of courage to ask a question in a large group setting of native English speakers, whether one is trying out the English that they know or asking through an interpreter! We want parents to feel comfortable participating and they will likely engage more when they feel safe and not judged.
Alternatively, here are some reasons to have some events/initiatives for all parents together:
Immigrant Integration: This is a concept that many educators are unfamiliar with, yet it very much “plays out” in schools. Immigrant integration is a dynamic, two-way process in which immigrants and the receiving society work together to build communities. In other words, integration is the process by which immigrants become accepted into society, both as individuals and as groups. Parent initiatives that include all parents facilitate immigrant integration because these are opportunities for immigrants and American-born parents to interact and get to know each other. Immigrant parents learn about others living in their new community and ideally, those who have lived in the community for years learn a bit about the cultural backgrounds of their new neighbors. These types of opportunities assist immigrants in becoming members of their new communities.
Access / Equity: It is our responsibility, according to federal law, to provide parents with information in a language they understand. All too often, we fail to provide true access for EL/immigrant parents, particularly with “high level” meetings that are traditionally attended by white parents and/or those with high socioeconomic status. What about school board meetings? Budget hearings? Meetings about gifted or magnet programs? While it is true that some parents might not be ready for these types of meetings (see Young-Chan Han’s Stages of Immigrant Parent Involvement), we need to make sure that the decision to attend such meetings is the parents’ and not ours. This very much ties in with outreach. All too often, I’ve seen information about opportunities sent out to parents and yet, this information isn’t translated into any other languages. The educator planning the event may offer to secure interpreters for the event, but expresses that there doesn’t appear to be a need since no one requested one. Yet, the outreach materials only went out in English and no EL/immigrant parents were aware the event was happening.
Funding: With ESSA, Title I and Title III must collaborate for parent and family outreach (ESSA, Section 1116 (a)(2)(C) and (e)(4)). This is a shift because previously, there was sometimes a concern about “co-mingling” Title I and Title III. Now, there are many opportunities for collaboration! For example, a district might use their Title I and Title III funds to have a family math night.
In conclusion, it is crucial that we simultaneously provide initiatives specifically for EL/immigrant parents as well as the means for EL/immigrant families to access opportunities offered to all parents.