Question: do you think it’s a good idea for schools to offer ESL programs to parents whose kids are attending school, but don’t attend parent teacher conferences because of the language barrier?

We clamor all the time that recently arrived immigrants are coddled into not learning English. One of the drawbacks to their ignorance of the language is their non attendance at parent-teacher conferences – mainly because they don’t understand what the teachers are trying to tell them.

A solution one school is toying with is to offer ESL classes to these parents.

That raises other issues – but for now, do you favor the approach?

When Greenwood Elementary School begins its parent-teacher conferences this week, most of the conversations will be in English.

According to the state Department of Education, nearly 13 percent of students across the district speak a language other than English at home.

The ratio is higher at Greenwood, where 33.5 percent of the pupils don’t speak English at home — and 22 percent speak Spanish — but there is only one bilingual teacher and no English as a Second Language program offered for parents or students.

It’s no wonder non-English speaking parents don’t attend school events, according to parent Robert Ortiz.
“They don’t come because nobody speaks the language. They need that extra help, that push,” Ortiz said. “What’s supposed to happen? Who translates? Who helps the parents understand what’s going on in the school?”

In speaking with neighbors and Greenwood parents, many say they don’t have the time to attend ESL classes in addition to work and family life. And without getting involved at the school, many have begun to view it as a “drop-off day care center,” Ortiz said.

The language barrier problem persists even in higher grades, he said.

Superintendent James Parla said last week that administrators began instituting protocols to help non-English speaking parents communicate with teachers and administrators.
The district has begun notifying school communities to contact a school’s principal and request a translator or interpreter, Parla said.

Additionally, the district has advertised to hire translators on an as-needed basis in order to assist with parent-teacher conferences or larger school wide meetings.
“We want to make sure that parents know that, even if they just want to come speak to a teacher, that we’ll have that service,” Parla said.

For many Spanish-speaking parents, third-grade teacher Miriam Clark is their main point of contact.
The only bilingual faculty member, Clark runs parent-teacher conferences in Spanish with Latino families and often acts as an impromptu translator during school meetings and events.

“I help out the best I can, but I can’t be in all places at the same time,” she said.
And she certainly can’t be at kitchen tables each night, where Ortiz said many students complete their homework without help from parents.

“What happens when they get home,” Ortiz said. "They sit at the table doing homework all by themselves. A lot of these kids do everything by themselves."

That practice bleeds into the classroom and on tests, Clark said. While the schools offer educational nights and information to parents, non-English speaking parents often ignore the invitations or are simply unaware of them.

According to the state Department of Education, Greenwood’s academic performance and college and career readiness of its pupils significantly lags in comparison to other elementary schools statewide.
It met none of its academic achievement targets in 2012 and ranked in the 12th percentile for statewide academic achievement.

Ortiz and Clark both have suggested that an after-school program for parents and their children would prove priceless, providing ESL opportunities for parents and dropping them right in the middle of their child’s classroom activities.

Parla said such discussions are already in place. Administrators are planning and developing after-school English language instruction programs for next year, with about 20 sessions in the fall and spring semesters.

In addition to learning basic English language skills, the sessions could help parents become more familiar with their child’s school and more comfortable requesting use of a translator.
“We should pull together and organize,” Parla said. “We have to provide these interpreter services, and make sure parents know they’re available, and reach out to them to make them more involved and more comfortable.”

Relying on her own experience, Clark knows those programs could work. Last year, she spearheaded Greenwood’s “Latino literacy nights,” welcoming Spanish-speaking parents and conducting bilingual lessons in reading comprehension and encouraging parent to read with their children every night.
Parents immediately became enamored with the program, requesting translations for specific words and phrases and eventually breaking into reading books in English.

I think it’s a great idea – again from the standpoint that a knowledge of English is essential for not only the children, but the parents as well, to be able to get along in society.

The looming question is how much will it cost, and who’s going to pay?