I met Alex’s mother a few years ago at the beginning of the school year. There was a parent orientation for families of students who are English language learners and who were new to the public school system.
We held the orientation in Spanish. We provided information and resources on how the school would support the student and the family. We also talked about how families could be involved in their child’s education.
But there’s so much going on in the beginning of the year and so much paperwork for families to deal with. It’s easy to be overwhelmed and miss some important information.
Later in the year, I met Alex’s mom again in the park. She told me that Alex was having behavior challenges. And while his schoolwork had shown some progress, it was very slow. Alex was also challenging at home.
Alex’s mother wanted to come to the school to get help, but she felt her English was not strong enough. She was afraid to approach his teachers who did not speak Spanish.
I told her what I tell many families for whom English isn’t their first language. There are different ways to reach out and find support. From technology to actual face-to-face meetings, here are my suggestions:
1. Request an interpreter.
By law, schools must respond to a parent’s request for language assistance. For example, schools must offer translated materials or a language interpreter. Language help must be free. And it must be provided by staff that is appropriate and competent (or through appropriate and competent outside resources). Schools should never use students as interpreters.
The interpretation services are done in person or over the phone with several people calling in at the same time. If the school sets up a videoconference, an interpreter has to be there, too. If you prefer, you have the right to bring a person you trust to interpret for you.
2. Write an email.
Find the teacher’s email address on the school website. See this example email you can use as a guide to write your own. Once you finish writing the email, you can translate it into English using a translation program like Google Translate.
You could also write an email to the parent coordinator. In many schools, the parent coordinator speaks more than one language and can act as an interpreter for you and your child. They can ask questions on your behalf or tell you the best way to solve a problem in the school. The parent coordinator can answer questions about school letters, meetings, trips, activities, or anything going on in the school.
3. Send a text or voice message.
Some schools use apps like ClassDojo, which translates messages back and forth between the teacher and the parent. There are other free messaging apps that translate into many different languages. Find out which app is being used at your child’s school.
If you’re not comfortable writing or reading in your own language, ClassDojo Messaging lets you send and receive voice notes on your mobile device. Also, a smartphone can read aloud any text on the screen.
4. Explore different resources.
Start by looking at your school’s website. You can also visit the sites for your district or for your state’s department of education. These will have much of the information provided in the orientation. That includes a parent bill of rights and ways you can support your child at home and at school. On some of those sites, you can choose your preferred language.
You can also take advantage of other resources, like Take N.O.T.E. From checklists and downloads, to conversation starters and prompts, this interactive experience is designed to help parents and families understand and support their child, which includes collaborating with their child’s teachers.
For more strategies, learn how to help if your child is struggling in school and why to partner with teachers.
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About the author
About the author
Christina Armas, MA teaches English as a New Language (ENL) in Queens, New York.