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UW Study Examines New Ways To Involve Immigrant Parents In School Activities

Photo courtesy of the Kent School District

Students do better in school when their parents volunteer and have a relationship with teachers and staff, decades of research have shown.

However, for some immigrant and low-income families, bake sales, PTA meetings and other traditional ways of being involved can be a little intimidating and confusing.

new report by the University of Washington's School of Education looks at what several districts in south King County are doing to get these parents feeling comfortable and involved in the school community.

‘When I Started Getting Involved, Everything Started To Be Smooth’

One example of parents the districts want to reach is Grace Ssebugwawo, a mother of four who moved from Uganda to Federal Way.

Trese Moore, Federal Way School District’s director of family and support services, says the mother was eager to get her kids enrolled in school but didn’t know what a school district was or how the libraries worked. Ssebugwawo thought she had to call the superintendent to ask about what school supplies she should buy.

“You and I would find it interesting that a person wouldn’t know that you would contact the teacher before you contact the superintendent about school supplies," Moore said. "But this parent said to me she was new to the country and it was helpful for her to know that if she wanted to know about school supplies, that she [the teacher] was the one to contact.”

Ssebugwawo was given a pamphlet of information from Moore’s office that clearly laid out the structure of the school.

“When I started getting involved, everything started to be smooth for me to ask where to go who to ask for what if I needed it,” said Sebugwa, recalling the start of her new life in the United States.

Once Sebugwa became familiar with how things worked, she became involved in the school community. Today, she helps other immigrants navigate a system that can seem like an opaque bureaucracy to those coming from another country and culture.

How PTA Meetings Can Send The Wrong Message

The UW report highlights work by Federal Way, as well as similar efforts in Kent and White Center.

Among the report’s findings: activities like PTA meetings can send unintentional negative messages to immigrant families.

“If everything is in English, for example, and there is no interpretation provided, and there are Roberts Rules of Order being used and expectations about paying to become a member, and ideas about fundraising being a primary activity — all of those can create a set of conditions where especially low-income, immigrant parents can get the message that they don’t have a place there and they can’t contribute,” said Anne Ishimaru, an associate professor at UW and one of the study's lead's authors. 

The studied districts are hiring more translators, and school officials are holding more face-to-face meetings — a practice some cultures consider more respectful than sending out flyers and emails. The Kent School District even runs a class for parents, complete with translators, to teach them how to navigate a public school district.

Moore hopes these efforts will lead to parents gaining enough knowledge and confidence to advocate on behalf of their children.

“You can have a brilliant child in you classroom and you can be a brilliant teacher when it comes to content. A brilliant child can still fail in the classroom of a brilliant teacher is that child does not feel engaged or understood,” Moore said.

Looking Forward

According to Moore, the Federal Way School District doesn’t know if its work is leading to academic success, but it has seen an improvement in student attendance.

As school districts serve increasingly diverse populations, figuring out best practices in this area is getting the attention of policy makers. Several people from the districts named in the UW report will attend a conference at Harvard University this summer, and one of the report's authors will attend a workshop at the White House. Both events will explore better ways schools can connect with immigrant communities and increase their involvement.

Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.

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