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Topic 7: Communication with stakeholders (parents, district, community)

Parents and district officials must each have accurate information about immersion education in order to make either appropriate personal choices or sound administrative decisions. And the community that houses an immersion school often does not understand the objectives of immersion education. How do immersion practitioners communicate vital information to each of these constituencies?

Practitioner Perspectives

Practitioner Perspectives

What kind of information best allays parents’ concerns about their child’s immersion education, e.g. English language literacy development, keeping up academically with non-immersion peers?

Not surprisingly, districts with successful immersion schools have found neither easy answers nor effective shortcuts to communicating with parents. In fact, “give parents as much information as possible as early as possible and as often as possible” might well be an immersion maxim. Parents will have many concerns. To name just a few of the frequently asked questions:

  • What does an immersion classroom look (and sound) like?
  • How do kindergarten students figure out what is going on when the teacher speaks only in the immersion language and they comprehend nothing?
  • How will my child learn to read and write in English?
  • What do I do as a parent when my child doesn’t understand the homework assignment and I don’t understand the immersion language?

District administrators can start talking about immersion even before they have a school building. They can speak cogently about the research behind successful immersion programs, can share experiences from other immersion schools in the region or even nationally, can refer parents to appropriate print and internet resources, can point to published test scores showing the ranking of immersion schools relative to other schools in the area. Well-informed district personnel who have a passion for language learning will be able to make a well-reasoned case for immersion education when parents may be feeling unsure about the decision to place their young child in an immersion classroom. Painting a detailed picture of an immersion classroom is essential to allay fears and create realistic expectations. What does a day in an immersion classroom look like? What can parents expect to happen over the course of a school year? If the school is not yet open, parents will be eager for explicit information about how an immersion classroom differs from an English-medium classroom. Administrators can help parents with the decision by posing questions that focus their thinking on the appropriateness and readiness of their family to engage in a significantly different learning experience. For example,

  • How many children are in your family? If you have older children, how are they going to react to this choice for this child?
  • Our building is smaller than other buildings in the district; therefore, [certain programs] are going to look different. Are you OK with that?
  • You’re not going to be able to walk into the classroom whenever you want to talk to the teacher because we need to constantly model the target language in front of the students. Are you comfortable with that rule?
  • Unless you understand [the target language] there will be times when you won’t know exactly what’s going on with your child’s homework. Are comfortable with that?

Parents can be highly anxious about the decision to enroll their 5- or 6-year old in an immersion school. This is, after all, a learning environment that is new to the vast majority of parents, one that does not necessarily produce immediate results (stellar standardized test scores, as an example) and one that neighbors and relatives may, at best, question or, worse, ridicule. For parents who have made this leap of faith decision, even before the school opens it doors for the first time, it is extremely important to reassure them and empathize with them. They are the pioneers in an educational experiment where - they may feel - their children are the guinea pigs.

As parents’ concerns arise administrators and teachers can help maintain perspective by providing forums for dialogue (site councils, focus groups, working committees), acknowledging that ideas generated by parents may be worth considering, and accepting offers of help from parents that create a community working toward a common educational goal.

How can immersion schools involve parents in constructive ways when they don’t speak the target language?

Parent-teacher associations are the backbone of parental involvement and volunteerism in many American schools. These associations organize fundraising activities, recruit chaperones for field trips and aides for the classrooms, advocate for special needs and programs before local school boards, and engage in a host of other educational support activities. The parent-teacher alliances in an immersion school generally operate no differently except for the limited opportunities for parents to be directly involved in the classroom.

However, immersion schools can benefit in numerous ways from parents’ expertise and enthusiasm even when they don’t speak the immersion language. Our practitioners suggest these ideas:

  • Set up a buddy program with current parents who can answer the questions of incoming parents and who will serve as ambassadors for immersion education;
  • Establish certain limited times when parents can go into the classroom, e.g. for a publication party or a special art project where extra hands are needed;
  • Encourage parents to organize and participate in extracurricular activities where knowledge of the target language is not essential;
  • Create opportunities for family involvement (Math Night, Literacy Night, Service Learning) that are aligned with school values and goals and will help parents understand what they can do at home to help their children succeed academically, e.g. read regularly to their children in English;
  • Involve parents on committees, boards (charter schools), and site councils where they can get firsthand knowledge of decision-making processes that will empower them to address concerns with a wider parent audience;
  • Acknowledge the importance of parent peer groups both within the school and across schools in a district or region that has more than one immersion school and support the work that parent groups undertake.

How can 2-way immersion programs involve parents who may not speak English?

Parents of non-English speaking students are often conspicuously absent from the myriad endeavors that parent-teacher organizations are often involved in. Their limited English proficiency may confine their school involvement to parent-teacher conferences; their immigration status or social standing may prevent them from adopting a more public profile in their child’s school, or they may be unfamiliar with the culture of parent support so ingrained in American public education. Whatever the reason, parent-teacher organizations in two-way immersion programs are often looking for ways to encourage and increase the participation of language minority parents.

Although creating a parallel organization that holds its meetings at the same time as the English-speaking parents’ meetings may run contrary to a spirit of collaboration, two-way immersion parent groups have confirmed the success and benefits of this approach. When non-English speaking parents meet they are free to voice concerns, comfortably, in their own language, that may be of little or no consequence to English-speaking parents: questions about visa and immigration status, expectations for student behavior or teacher discipline in U.S. schools, adaptation to new surroundings, culture, and language, and so on.

Schools that have established dual parent organizations separated by language frequently are quick to point out the importance of having a go-between. Someone who is bilingual, bicultural, and, preferably, willing to attend both meetings can keep everyone apprised of concerns that are shared by both groups. The benefits that accrue to the whole school can include increased participation of language minority parents, not just as consumers of education, but as more active partners in their children’s schooling and the enrichment and extracurricular activities that so often rely on parent engagement and leadership.

Other recommendations to increase participation of language minority parents in two-way immersion:

  • Schedule presentations in the parents’ native language
  • Offer a light meal and childcare for younger children
  • Provide transportation to school either in car pools or taxis, if funds are available
  • Arrange for performances by the children which always increases turnout
  • Have teachers publicize meetings and events repeatedly emphasizing those that will be conducted in the parents’ native language

Readings from the ACIE Archives:

Paradigms of Participation –Zehrbach, ACIE, November 2006
MAIN Parents – Richardson, ACIE, February 2006
Wanted: Parents with Time for School - Miller & Polanco-McNealy, ACIE, February 2005
Forest Glen Parent Education Conference: Preparing Students …Tomorrow’s World, - Nolden, ACIE, February 2004
Organizational Pointers for Secondary Immersion Parents - Johnson, ACIE, May 2003
Parent Activism: A Critical Component for Secondary Immersion – Johnson, ACIE, May 2003
Channeling Involved Parents – Berkey, ACIE, May ?2001
Why Immersion? – Sweitzer, ACIE, February 2001
Parent Advocacy in Milwaukee – Guthery, ACIE, June 2000
The Changing Role of the Parent-Teacher Organization in an Immersion School – Nelson, ACIE, March 2000
Homework in an Immersion Classroom: Parental Friend or Foe? – Lewis, ACIE, December 1999
Changing Parental Concerns - Bredesen & Bredesen, ACIE, May 1999
A Dozen Activities for Promoting the Use of Spanish Outside of School - Downs-Reid & Pezan, ACIE, November 1997

How does an immersion school develop and maintain support from the school district; i.e. administrators, school board members, teachers in other schools?

Immersion schools often materialize from grassroots advocacy by parents. In such cases, early support from a superintendent, a director of curriculum, school board members, or other high-level district officials, becomes essential. Even if someone in the district is providing the vision and leadership from the beginning, there are some basic rules of the road that our practitioners recommend:

  • Be a team player. As willing members of district-wide committees or task forces, immersion educators and parents can dispel myths, provide research data, explain why certain needs differ from English-medium schools, and possibly head off controversy before it surfaces. Board members and administration officials who understand immersion can then be more proactive about promoting the school and approving measures that support best practices in immersion education.
  • Remain sensitive to other schools in the district. Immersion schools often get a lot of media attention, especially when they are new. Common misconceptions about immersion schools – they get more money, they attract the best students in the district, they get to handpick their students, they counsel behavior problems out – spread easily. Promote the school within the context of the district showing how it operates under the same budget constraints as other schools, works hard at recruiting and retaining the same demographic mix, etc. Explain the challenge of maintaining services as attrition lowers enrollment at the upper grade levels.
  • Maintain the integrity of the immersion model. Immersion schools do indeed have different needs from English-medium schools so educators and teachers must strike a balance between their roles as members of a public school district and their responsibility to be genuine advocates for district flexibility and accountability to immersion principles. Break away when something that everyone else is doing is not appropriate for immersion.
  • Include non-immersion participants on planning teams. As immersion programs grow from elementary into secondary, it is important to recruit teachers, administrators and parents who are not currently part of the immersion community to be on articulation committees. Misunderstandings and misconceptions about immersion education can be addressed from the outset and collaborative planning for the transition into secondary school will increase chances for consensus.
  • Use parents as ambassadors for immersion. Parents can often attend school board meetings and communicate with district administrators as consumers of public education. If administrators and school board members are unfamiliar with immersion, parents are frequently happy to bring them up to par by making them aware of the unique needs of immersion programs.

Readings from the ACIE Archives:

Planning for Articulation: One Principal’s Experience – Swanson, ACIE, May 2003
Standardized Testing: Overcoming the Threat to Immersion Education – Minnich, ACIE, March 2000
Immersion Friendly/Unfriendly
School profiles

How does an immersion school develop and maintain support from the community?

Any new endeavor has, on the one hand, eager and enthusiastic proponents and, on the other hand, scrutinizing, skeptical critics. Some members of the community appreciate the value of early language learning; others see no need and disapprove of any plan that dilutes the strength of neighborhood schools. Introducing the idea of an immersion school in your community will certainly attract both types to school board meetings and community forums. Although immersion schools have opened and flourished in the midst of community disharmony and disagreement over the basic principle of early foreign language learning, it is hard to imagine any district would choose this contentious path over a more agreeable one. Therefore, preparing for heated confrontation, at worst, and misinformed objections, at best, is a crucial first step to garnering public support for immersion education. Even in the early stages, it is important to include those who oppose immersion education in the discussions so they get firsthand knowledge of budgeting and other issues that they may be objecting to.

Survey community members to learn about their aspirations for their children, their approval or disapproval of district decisions, their opinion of the district’s fiscal accountability, their understanding and support of the importance of early language learning, and their socio-economic, ethnic, and linguistic backgrounds. Hold focus groups to identify areas that will need to be addressed before support from the community is forthcoming. Do significant segments of the population see learning a foreign language as un-American? Do they perceive immersion education as elitist, either drawing the most talented students from the district or those from the most advantaged households thus creating a private school setting within a public school district? Do they believe funding an immersion school will be too expensive?

Once an immersion school has opened, these same public relations issues will present themselves periodically as members of the community become more aware of the school and its goals. Concerns about fiscal accountability and elitism are especially persistent so it is important to provide data showing that the immersion school operates within the same constraints as other schools in the district. For example, the immersion school requests no extra funding from the district to run its program or that it manages populations of special needs students like other schools do.

What measures are effective in educating the community about immersion education?

One of the most effective strategies for educating a community about immersion education is the enthusiastic word-of-mouth support from parents of children in the school. Whatever buzz accompanies parents as they spread the news can translate into demand for immersion programs. Our practitioners spoke of waiting lists that grow as parents become aware of the opportunity for early language learning in their community.

However enthusiastic parents can be about their children’s experience in an immersion school, they have neither the expertise nor authority to address the kinds of myths and misconceptions that may spread throughout a community. A concerted effort by the school, with the support of the district, to manage its public profile will undoubtedly be an on-going job. Local press outlets such as community newspapers can be effective vehicles for such public relations. Regular news about your immersion school should be informative and measured highlighting the school’s role in the district as well as its unique educational traits.

Reading from the ACIE Archives:

Organizational Pointers for Secondary Immersion Parents – Johnson, ACIE, May 2003
Planning for Articulation: One Principal’s Experience – Swanson, ACIE, May 2003
First Stop: Alaska! CARLA Immersion Workshops on the Road - Tedick & Fortune, ACIE, February 2003
Parent Advocacy in Milwaukee, ACIE, June 2000
Milwaukee German Immersion School - Curtain & Buchert, ACIE, June ?2000
Park Spanish Immersion School: A Budding Program of Academic Excellence and Language Learning – Swanson, ACIE, March 2000

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