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Many Limited English Proficient (LEP) parents fear their voices will be lost in translation in the school system. No se si entenderan . . . sera que entro? I do not know if they will understand me . . . will I enter? In Saturday morning's session "From Involvement to Engagement: Breaking Barriers of LEP Parental Involvement," Jusmar Maness shared Balfour Elementary School's journey to bringing parents into the classroom through programs focusing on cultural proficiency.
Maness finds pride in her Venezuelan heritage and bilingualism. But when she became principal of Balfour Elementary School three years ago, she realized that not all of her students—or their parents—held their cultural backgrounds in the same esteem.
Located in an Ashboro, N.C., school district where 60 percent of students identify as Hispanic and 93 percent receive free or reduced-price lunches, Balfour Elementary School initially struggled to engage parents in their children's academic achievement. "Our school was considered the poor school in the district," Maness said. "I realized that I had to tap into what we had as a strength rather than as a weakness."
When a school has a large population of LEP parents, the biggest barriers to engagement are economic, social, educational, cultural, and lingual, Maness noted. She shared that LEP parents worry that school administrators will not understand them. Complicating matters further, many LEP parents believe that only teachers can influence their children's education. "There's a big culture of respect. If a teacher says A, it's A. Parents don't think they have to come" to the table when it concerns their kid's education, Maness remarked. "But that doesn't mean they don't want to come."
Schools often work in a flawed "parent involvement" paradigm, a top-down model where school administrators have all the agency, Maness pointed out. Instead, schools should strive for a "parent engagement" model, which distributes weight more evenly between schools and households by building trusting relationships with families and inviting parents to participate in extracurricular programs alongside their children.
How can administrators build that bridge between families and schools? The answer, said Maness, comes down to culture.
Three years ago, Balfour Elementary School implemented a weekly program called the Heritage Language Academy, which strives to help both parents and students increase literacy in their heritage language and then transfer those skills to English. The program, which currently includes 40 families, involves four main components: English as a second language and computer literacy classes for parents, Spanish literacy classes for children, enrichment and daycare for students in kindergarten through 2nd grade, and collaborative family projects.
The collaborative family project brings students and their parents together to discuss their cultural heritage ("who we were"), current identity ("who we are"), and goals for the future ("who we are going to be"). Parents can tell their cultural story with their children by sharing the books they read in their native language and the memories they cherish from their home countries. The collaborative project has been a particularly valuable feature of the Heritage Language Academy; many of the students are second- or third- generation immigrants with little connection to their culture beyond speaking the language, Maness noted.
To advance the goals of the Heritage Language Academy, Balfour Elementary launched Heritage Night three years ago, an annual evening of sharing traditions from around the world. Each classroom is assigned a specific country for its students and parents to research and then present to the rest of the school. In past years, one classroom assigned to Tanzania created a towering replica of Mount Kilimanjaro; another role-played scenes in an Australian café, complete with attempted accents.
One iteration of Heritage Night made a particularly profound impact on a Balfour student named Jada, whose family came from Egypt, Maness reported. When her classroom chose to study Egypt, Jada became the resident expert, helping the class create a project for Heritage Night that celebrated her culture. "Until that day, she said she never felt she was special. She never felt she could say where she was from," said Maness.
By breaking down cultural barriers and empowering parents to involve themselves in their children's education, Maness points out that Balfour Elementary's parental engagement—once at only 21 percent—is now at 93 percent.
"It comes from changing the culture from within, where everybody feels that this is a team effort," Maness said. "Everybody is working together, doing everything for our children."
Emily McCormick is a third-year student at UCLA with a major in Communication Studies and minors in Entrepreneurship and Music History. She is also currently the Music | Arts editor at UCLA's Daily Bruin. Contact Emily at email@example.com.
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