Integrating into a new community can be difficult for anyone, but when you come from a different country and speak a different first language, the challenges can seem daunting. In a recent webinar hosted by REL Central at Marzano Research, my colleagues and I discussed strategies and tools that districts, schools, and educators can use to build the trust needed to engage English learners (ELs) and their families and help them succeed.
As a family advocate and associate professor of English speakers of other languages and bilingual education, I’ve spent considerable time working with communities, many of them rural, to develop gateways to EL achievement. What I’ve learned from that work is that EL families often experience a sense of ostracization and, in many cases, a fear of deportation that can bring about paralysis when engaging in conversations with community members, let alone school faculty. As a result, the first step in supporting EL learning is bridging the trust gap between school staff and EL families.
In Florida, we’ve carried out a number of initiatives that have helped to begin building bridges. A few simple fixes have included working with schools to add native language messages to school billboards or even directional icons on signs in school halls. These help to make both family and students feel more welcome.
Another suggestion for educators is to make school buildings a central part of the EL community by offering healthcare, food, and even special event services through the facilities. By doing so, EL families come to see the school as a safe space where relationships and trust can be founded—a sentiment that translates to the children’s education.
Finally, significant cultural differences often exist between EL families’ past experiences with education systems and the U.S. system. These differences can impede parents’ ability to support their children’s learning. To address this, trainings can be developed for the parents of ELs. One example is the development and dissemination of fotonovelas, or short, photo-based storybooks, which describe report cards and explain how they can be used to encourage students’ learning at home.
While every community is different, I have found that one thing is universal, building student achievement often starts with trust and a little old-fashioned hospitality.