U.S. Department of Education Hosts EL Parent Roundtable
Updated: Dec 17, 2020
Today I was fortunate to be able to help the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) facilitate a roundtable discussion with a group of English Learner (EL) parents. There were approximately 12 parents in attendance from the Washington, DC region. The majority were from Prince George’s County Public Schools, but they also came from Anne Arundel County Public Schools, and DC Public Schools, including charter schools. The parents came from a variety of cultural and linguistic backgrounds, with the majority speaking Spanish.
Two Spanish-speaking simultaneous interpreters were provided by Prince George’s County Public Schools Office of Interpreting and Translation to help facilitate the conversation. Much of the conversation flowed back-and-forth between English and Spanish and the interpreters interpreted from English-to-Spanish or Spanish-to-English depending on the need in the moment.
There were also five staff from the U.S. Department of Education present, including the director of OELA, José Viana. Mr. Viana has hosted similar EL parent groups in other states, but this was the first in the DC area. OELA staff started out the meeting by explaining the purpose of the gathering which was to hear directly from EL parents about their successes, challenges, and recommendations in regards to their children’s education. They emphasized they cannot do this by sitting in an office and that they want to hear from parents directly.
Many of the parents shared that they do not always feel heard by their schools and districts. One dad stated “I’ve tried sharing my needs and concerns with the school, but it’s like talking to a wall.” Another mom said “I asked for help at school, but they didn’t hear me.” Therefore, the parents were extremely grateful for this opportunity to be listened to and to be able to convey their feelings and recommendations.
There were a number of themes throughout the conversation:
Welcoming environment: Many parents emphasized the importance of schools creating a welcoming environment for students and families. The parents (and administrators!) from Beacon Heights Elementary in PGCPS who were present highlighted their open-door policy for parents. They work hard to create an environment such that parents feel comfortable and confident to walk in and discuss any questions or concerns they have.
Bullying: Bullying was a concern raised by many of the parents present. Through tears, some described how their children were physically and/or verbally harmed by other students. One parent even described how a staff member harassed her child and told him to stop speaking Spanish. Parents emphasized the importance of filing a report when bullying happens.
Language access: OELA staff emphasized that all parents have a right to receive information in a language they understand. That said, a number of the parents shared how much better they were able to advocate for their children after they learned more English. One parent said "I speak more English now and can defend myself better!"
Mental health: Some parents emphasized how much of a problem mental health is and the importance of socio-emotional learning. One parent stated “If you’re not emotionally healthy, you won’t be able to learn anything!”
Bilingual Programs: There was some discussion about the importance of bilingual (or dual immersion) programs. One parent pointed out that in her area, there are some of these programs at the elementary level, but then less so at the secondary level. Some parents in her school community welcome these types of programs while others are resistant. OELA has the research showing the benefits of being bilingual and emphasized that parents can use this research to advocate for these programs in their schools and districts.
Special education: A number of parents shared they have children with special needs and the challenges associated with that. Some expressed frustration that teachers in their children’s school seem to have an unrealistic expectation that all children should act and learn in the same way.
Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education (SLIFE): One parent spoke about being a PTA president in a community with many students from Central America who have had very little schooling before coming to the U.S. and cannot read or write in Spanish. These students often get placed with their peers, based on their age. All agreed there is a great need in helping students with this type of background. Though PGCPS has developed two International High Schools to support these students, the needs are much greater in the larger DC area.
Access to college: One parent talked about starting high school at the age of 18 when she arrived in the U.S. and her struggles to try and graduate quickly and move on to college. This led to a discussion about access to college and scholarships.
Overall, the parents present were extremely grateful for the opportunity to express how they’re feeling. A key theme that we kept coming back to over and over again is that information equals power. Much information about parental rights was shared at the meeting. All agreed that when one gains information, they gain power and the ability to better advocate for their child. The importance of establishing one’s presence in school was discussed.
A special thanks to Prince George’s County Memorial Library System and to Prince George’s County Public Schools for helping to put on this event and of course, to Mr. José Viana and the rest of the staff from the U.S. Department of Education for taking the time to allow this group of EL parents to have a voice.