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Are Schools Doing Enough for Non-English Speaking Parents?

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In a recent column about the role of parental involvement in school, Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez took issue with a local school board’s practice of conducting meetings in Spanish, a concession to its predominantly Latino population.

His initial reaction: ” Holding on to your native language is terrific. But parents who make no effort to learn English are limiting their own job prospects, hindering their ability to monitor their children’s education and giving their kids an extra burden if they enter school with limited English.”

The comments stirred up considerable public reaction, leading to this September 17 follow-up, in which Lopez examines the language issue more closely.

While acknowledging the difficulties of learning a new language, particularly for low-income families struggling just to survive, Lopez notes: “It’s undeniable that language barriers — and perhaps to an even greater extent, economic disadvantages — are major factors in the abysmal test scores and graduation rates in California and other states. Starting school without English can be a disorienting hardship for the student, a drag on classmates and a great burden on the teacher.”

Lopez seems to perpetuate the idea that Latino immigrants are not trying to learn English. But as someone who came to the United States as a child, I saw firsthand how hard my parents and other family members worked to master English. I’ve also seen that effort when writing stories about Latino education issues and have interviewed parents taking English classes at night or teaching themselves the language. Research, including this Pew Hispanic Center report, has also shown that Latino immigrants are learning English at the same rate as earlier generations of immigrants.

But the bigger question for education reporters might be what schools are doing to reach out to non-English speaking parents and encourage their involvement.

Are there free or low-cost English classes for parents, as I saw in one Boston-area school? Do schools send home paperwork and flyers translated into Spanish? Are school meetings and open houses conducted in both Spanish and English? How do teachers and school administrators treat parents who don’t speak English?

At the next school board meeting, PTA gathering, or open house, try tagging along with non-English speaking parents, and view the experience from their perspective. The resulting story could offer insight into the obstacles faced by immigrant parents. If your district offers English classes for parents, try following some parents through the process for a look at the issue through their eyes.