Paradigms of Participation

The ACIE Newsletter, November 2006, Vol. 10, No. 1

By Gareth Zehrbach, Principal, Nuestro Mundo Community School, Madison, Wisconsin

Securing parent involvement in public schools can be very challenging (see, for example, Delgado-Gaitan, 1991; Fine, 1993; Jackson & Cooper, 1989; Lareau, 1989). This participation can be even more taxing in urban areas with high poverty rates, high mobility rates, and low graduation rates. Nevertheless, parent support is a critical factor to the academic success of our nation’s youth. Indeed, research has revealed positive associations between items such as parental involvement and academic achievement (Becher, 1986)

Therefore, as educators we must find new and innovative ways to attract previously unheard voices in our schools. This article describes one approach to including non-English speaking parents in two-way immersion school participation and decision making


Spanish-speaking parents follow along with the speaker at a Nuestro Mundo meeting while English-speaking parents listen with translation equipment.

Nuestro Mundo Community School (NMCS) is a dual language charter school located in Madison, Wisconsin. The school is in the second year of operation and utilizes a Spanish-English 90-10 two-way immersion model where initial literacy is in the second language. The school’s high poverty rate means that more than one in two students qualifies for the free and reduced lunch program. Approximately 40% of the student population is native Spanish-speaking. NMCS is a majority-minority school which means that over 50% of its student body is comprised of non-Anglo students

One of the pioneering ideas behind the creation of NMCS was promoting an environment with new participatory dynamics—an environment where parents would have more power than they have traditionally been afforded. One of the conduits for achieving this goal is through a governing body called the Site Leadership Council (SLC). Composed primarily of parents, along with some community members, the SLC meets on a monthly basis to make decisions and receive information about the operations of the school

The SLC meetings started with some involvement from the native Spanish-speaking parents; however, this participation quickly faded. The meetings were conducted in both languages with English usually spoken first followed by the facilitator translating into Spanish. The meetings took a long time to finish and some of the conversation inevitably did not get translated into the other language (which was usually Spanish). By the midpoint of the academic year, meetings were dominated by a cohort of white middleclass parents. While we sincerely value contributions from our middle-class parents, we had to acknowledge that we were not going to meet one of the most important goals we had set, which was to include Spanishspeaking families

None of the stakeholders in the school were content with the rates of participation from some parent groups or the types of participation we were receiving at the SLC meetings. Since participation was primarily limited to white parents from middle-class backgrounds, it was clear that something needed to change. We decided to conduct the meetings solely in Spanish with simultaneous translation provided with translating equipment. This is a system where a skilled translator translates to wireless receivers via a digital or radio transmitter. The equipment is not cheap1, but initial results suggest that it is worth the cost. Following this shift to dual language meetings facilitated by the new equipment, the participatory dynamics of our meetings changed dramatically. This was especially true for our targeted population of native Spanish speakers. Indeed, more native Spanishspeaking families have attended the meetings

Their vocal participation has increased as well. The native Spanish-speaking parents have reported feeling more at ease and have appreciated the efforts that allow them to interact more ably with non-Spanish-speaking parents

And, there hasn’t been any negative feedback from the monolingual English-speaking parent population. For instance, since English is the dominant language of the United States and some believe it should be the sole language of public discourse, we thought that some of the English-only speaking parents would have looked askance upon this new method of communicating. Furthermore, we thought that some parents might become disgruntled if they believed we were placing more value upon Spanish than English. This new paradigm of communication also conflicts with certain forms of advantage that English-speaking middle-class parents have traditionally held over marginalized groups in America’s public schools (Lightfoot, 1978). As some researchers have noted, people are reluctant to give away advantages as this represents a loss of power (see for example Lipman, 2002; Valenzuela, 1999).2 In contrast to these beliefs, the actual feedback has been very positive from these parents with comments ranging from “the equipment is awesome” to “great.” One English-only parent spoke with more detail saying:

Yes, I thought the meeting went well....faster! I think the fact that English-speaking people were able to ask questions and answer questions (after only a very slight delay) showed that it worked well. Everyone was able to participate in the meeting, easily.

Changing Dynamics

At Nuestro Mundo we have found that paradigms of participation may have an effect on the participatory dynamics of parent groups When paradigms morph or expand, historically marginalized groups are extended valuable social capital that gives them new types of access into school systems. At our school, this new type of interaction serves to create an environment where Spanish-speaking families feel welcomed and where communication has the opportunity to flourish. These are two elements considered highly important to successful parent group operations (López, Scribner, & Mahitivanichcha, 2001; Williams & Chavkin, 1989)

However, a word of caution is in order. Our experiences and observations are taken from only one semester of meetings using the simultaneous translation equipment. More time is needed before definitive conclusions can be made about rates and types of parent participation

We are not positing that we have created an environment where native Spanish-speaking families are actually engaging in decision-making processes. Rather, we believe this strategy may help schools that are looking to establish a more equal playing field for cross-cultural communication among different parent populations

Indeed, if attention is not given to assuring that the voices of the native Spanish-speaking families are truly heard, then the eradication of the language barrier alone will not allow for NMCS to achieve its true goal of getting these parents involved in the decision-making process. If native Spanish-speaking parents feel that their opinions are not valued, they may be afraid to voice concerns. In addition, in many Spanish- speaking countries, parents do not expect to have a voice in the operations of the school (Valdés, 1996), so American participatory dynamics run counter to their norms and culture.

This means that Nuestro Mundo will need to provide parent empowerment and education programs to help Spanish-speaking parents understand how they too can play a role in the operations and decision making at the school

As stated at the beginning of this article, parent participation and support from historically marginalized groups can be difficult to attain in our public schools. However, because of its potentially positive impact on student academic achievement, self-esteem, persistence rates, etc., it will be necessary to obtain this support. To accomplish this goal, existing forms of social capital will need to be redistributed. Indeed, new and creative approaches will be necessary to gather the voices of previously unheard populations.



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