Expert tips on how to better engage non-English-speaking families 

Each year from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, local educational agencies observe National Hispanic Heritage Month by celebrating the histories, cultures and contributions of those whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America. In California, about 56 percent of students are Hispanic and/or Latino.

Schools play a critical role in preparing these students for success in college, career and civic life. Often, a great place to start addressing student needs is by first bolstering family engagement, according to Andrew Ferson, director of Policy for the Parent Institute for Quality Education (PIQE).

Research has long shown that strong family engagement practices can boost graduation and establish a college going culture, improve grades and achievement in both English and math, increase rates of completion of the courses required for university admission and more.

Below, Ferson explains the importance of family engagement, especially for families who speak another language at home, and what steps LEAs can take to bolster support going forward.

Why is strong family engagement important in improving outcomes related to things like student achievement, school climate, etc.? 

When families know how to engage in their children’s education, they can better support them in their educational journey. A student whose family is involved in their education has a greater chance of success in school and in life — they are more confident, have better social skills, develop strong relationships, perform better at school, enjoy going to school and are more likely to pursue a higher education.

Beyond the benefits for each family, strong family–school partnerships have enormous benefits for the entire school community. Educators and administrators that are able to build relationships with families will have a better understanding of their students, and learning in school can better be supported at home and vice versa. This shared understanding fosters a welcoming and positive school climate, an essential aspect of not only raising student achievement across the board, but also enabling the school community to weather challenges.

Why is family engagement so critical for families who speak another language at home? Are there any added benefits? 

In every relationship, communication is one of the most important aspects. If schools cannot effectively communicate with the families in their school community, building strong partnerships with those families will be impossible.

Many families who speak a language other than English at home feel disconnected from their school community. They want to be more engaged in their children’s education, but do not know how to participate or do not feel confident enough to ask about their child’s education because of language and cultural barriers.

It is incumbent on the entire school community to create an environment that welcomes and communicates with all families, especially for those families where English is a second language.

What are some things beyond simply translating official documents that districts can do to be more culturally competent and inclusive in engaging families? 

To better serve families of diverse backgrounds and involve them in their children’s education, districts should consider the needs of these communities.

Here are a few things districts and schools should consider doing:

  • Provide all the school’s information in the family’s home language.
  • Do not assume [you know what a child’s home life looks like] and work to understand a family’s home context and situation, such as whether they have reliable internet and technology access, how they get to school each day, what responsibilities students have at home, etc.
  • Take the time to learn about families’ traditions, cultural norms and languages — and incorporate them into the school culture.
  • Have an interpreter during meetings, if necessary, to ensure everything is being communicated.
  • Ensure that the material that is presented in school and in the classroom represents all families and is culturally sensitive.
  • Partner with families on decision making when possible — lean on their expertise as the ones who know and care about their children the most.
  • Ensure families understand that they are welcome and that the school staff understands that there might be cultural and language barriers and are willing to work with them to communicate better.

Establishing these actions will send a powerful message about the kind of culture you want to build at school.

What are some best practices or programming districts can employ to engage families? 

PIQE works in partnership with schools and districts across the state to empower families in their children’s education, and we are privileged in that role to see many examples of true family engagement in schools.

The districts and schools that do this work the best:

  • Understand that family engagement is an equal partnership between families and schools.
  • Engage with their community and families in a culturally responsive manner.
  • Provide their staff with the support and skills necessary to carry out this work.
  • Partner strategically with community-based organizations to lean on their expertise and expand the school’s reach.
  • Work to create a culture of engagement that can sustain over the long term.

We are lucky to be in a state that is dedicated toward improving family–school partnerships and that understands the importance of investing in that work over the long haul because so much more work needs to be done.