The global classroom

By Michelle Chen Mar 24, 2009

If you’re a kid in a New York City classroom, there’s a good chance that your parents, and maybe you, were not born in the United States; there’s also a good chance that when it comes to participating in your educational future, your family will run into language barriers, staff who don’t understand your culture–and you can forget about PTA meetings. Advocates for Children, a NYC-based nonprofit, surveyed local parents’ connections to their school systems and found:

The immigrant parents we interviewed identified several significant barriers to participating in school activities, including being stopped at the door when they do not have identification, intimidated by school staff who were insensitive or unresponsive to their needs and treated badly because of their background or limited English. Despite some gains in language access for Spanish-speaking parents, parents who spoke other languages said they could not get answers to basic questions about their children’s schools. In addition, schools often rely on written communication to connect with families — which is a problem for parents with limited literacy. Immigrant parents also told us that language, lack of information, and cultural differences prevented them from participating in Parent Teacher Associations and other school leadership opportunities. Many parents said that schools reached out or responded to them only when there were problems with their children in school.

Emphasizing the role of parental involvement in fostering academic achievement, the report recommends that the public school system take proactive steps to engage immigrant parents and their children in the school experience. Some ideas: establish an “Immigrant Family Resource Center” in each borough; partner with community-based organizations to broaden channels for communication with administrators and ensure that immigrant families are aware of school plans and policies; create opportunities for school leadership and volunteering for immigrant parents; and simply hire more staff who represent the same communities and language groups that the student body does. Immigrant perspectives are gaining prominence in the ongoing debate on education reform, particularly how English language-learners fare in public schools. Bringing more immigrant parents to the table could energize a dialogue that is often sadly monolingual. Image: New York State United Teachers