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    How Can Districts Improve Communication with Immigrant and Newcomer Families?

    by Ellen Ullman, on Feb 14, 2024 4:15:56 PM

    In 2021, 1 in 4 children—or 18.4 million kids—were in an immi­grant fam­i­ly, up from 1 in 5 children in the ear­ly 2000s, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. They are the fastest-growing segment of school-age students, and districts need to understand their potential to help them succeed. From encouraging family engagement to expanding the curriculum to include a variety of cultures and backgrounds, there are many steps administrators can take to build relationships with English learner and immigrant families.

    Julie Sugarman, Associate Director for K-12 Education Research at Migration Policy Institute, focuses on multilingual learner education. We spoke with her to learn how educators can improve their communication and outreach to immigrant and newcomer parents.

    “When it comes to communication, we don’t always think about how the message is being received. Instead, we assume others experience the world the way we do,” says Sugarman.

    Find out about family needs
    Start by finding out what a family’s language needs are. You can do a home language survey or simply ask parents what they speak and—equally important—which language(s) they read. For example, people from Congo may speak various African languages but read French. If you only ask what they speak, you may be missing the big picture. 

    Sugarman suggests also asking how much English your immigrant parents can speak. People might read or speak enough to say they know English but not understand important documents like individualized education programs (IEPs). The point is that you need to think deeply about language needs. 

    There’s no such thing as too much explanation
    Immigrant families tell Sugarman that they always need more background information; they often have trouble understanding forms, report cards, requirements around English language proficiency, or a child’s placement in various programs. Formalities need to be accompanied by a detailed explanation and, when possible, a two-way conversation about parent expectations, legal requirements, and what’s best for the child’s education.  

    Be aware of cultural differences
    “Lots of immigrant families think if something is important enough, they will be called,” says Sugarman. Districts need to share expectations for attendance, conferences, and events. Explain why permission slips need to be signed, describe the class picture process, and so on. Highlight what families need to know and translate it. Bloomz makes this easy since we offer automatic translation services in 133 different languages.

    We may assume parents who don’t attend meetings are not interested but they could have a work conflict, childcare issues, or not realize the significance. When possible, ask what’s going on. Reach out to community organizations such as church groups, Catholic Charities, and refugee resettlement agencies to see how you can collaborate. And don’t forget to talk with front office staff at every building. “There are stories from refugee families who were turned away for not bringing birth certificates when enrolling their children in school,” says Sugarman. “Make sure the first impression is welcoming and positive.”

    Empathy goes a long way
    Above all, keep in mind that immigrant families may view the school system as a government agency and be afraid to provide written information. Some families may respond better to messages that come from a person they have built a relationship with, such as the ESL teacher or director, although building trust with school officials is an important part of parent engagement. Reassure these families that your school respects their privacy and be clear about what happens with information you collect.

    Use a unified communication platform to overcome barriers
    Supporting people of different cultures, languages, and technology challenges may seem a bit daunting, but the latest technology has made it pretty straightforward. Bloomz, for example, has two-way translations to 133 languages, support for all mobile and desktop devices, and communication via email/text/app/voice to ensure there is no additional burden on your staff while engaging every family.



    Topics:Immigrant familiesEnglish learners