“Aren’t You on the Parent Listserv?”

Working for equitable family involvement in a dual-immersion elementary school

By Grace Cornell Gonzales

Illustrator: Bec Young

When I visited my current school in San Francisco to do a demo lesson in a dual-immersion classroom, I was excited by the diversity that I saw. The bilingual Oakland school I had worked in before had been anything but diverse, either racially or socio-economically—98 percent of the students identified as Latina/o, 95 percent were eligible for free or reduced lunch, and about 86 percent were classified as English language learners. Everywhere it seemed that segregation in public schools was becoming more entrenched. Yet here I was, awkwardly clutching my bag of demo lesson materials, facing a sea of kindergarten faces that seemed to buck this trend. There were Latina/o students, African American students, white students, all chattering away in Spanish. I was elated. Could I have found a place where the interests and needs of many different populations converged—a public school that worked for everyone?

Then, in September, after starting my new job as a kindergarten teacher, I went to a PTA meeting. The parents at the meeting were excited to be there and dedicated to making the school a place that would serve their children. They were also almost entirely white, and—as I would learn as I got to know parents personally in our small school community—almost entirely middle- or upper-middle-class native English speakers. On paper, our school was about 50 percent Latina/o and 20 percent African American. Yet, in that first PTA meeting, with about 40 people in attendance, I saw only a handful of Latina/o parents. There were no African American families present. Later in the year, one African American family did frequently attend, but the number of Latina/o parents who came and used the interpretation services quickly dropped to zero. In addition, most of the parents involved came from the Spanish immersion track. The general education track, composed largely of students of color, was essentially unrepresented.

At my previous school, where the majority of families were recent immigrants, I had seen the positive impact of parents who were empowered to advocate for their children, although most were not native English speakers and many were unfamiliar with the structures of the local school system. The English Learner Advisory Committee (ELAC) and School Site Council (SSC), the two required decision-making bodies with parent members, were run in Spanish by parents, and there was no such thing as low family involvement due to the demographics of the community. Parents felt at home and knew that neither their native language nor unfamiliarity with the school system would be barriers to articipation. Where were these families at my current school?

As I watched the PTA set fundraising goals, choose art enrichment programs, fund teaching positions, allocate money for books, determine what technology would be purchased, and select what types of paraprofessionals to hire, I became more and more concerned about whose voices were being heard and whose children were being advocated for.

I quickly began to see these inequities play out in my own classroom. The three mothers who signed up to be room parents were middle-class professionals, all white native English speakers. They all knew each other because their children had gone to the same bilingual preschool. The majority of families at Back to School Night were also white and English speaking. In the first two weeks, emails were sent, Google docs created, and listservs were joined, all in English. One half of the classroom parent community got to work, humming right along on rails that issed the other half by miles.

This was worrisome for a number of reasons. At my school, the stakes for parent participation are high because of the sorts of decisions the parent groups are responsible for. The PTA and SSC manage the budget, and the PTA brings in more than $100,000 a year. These groups work together to decide everything from whether or not there should be combination classes to what types of after-school intervention are vailable to struggling students, from field trip budgets to whether there are art enrichment classes and for whom.

I was also concerned about this pattern for another reason: As teachers we see the direct impact of parent involvement on our students—families who feel comfortable with and included in the school community can advocate for their children’s needs, check in about their progress, get tips on how to help them at home, and stay informed about programs and opportunities that will be beneficial to their family. Attendance goes up and children benefit from seeing their parents as involved in their school community. When parents and teachers talk, children’s behavior and motivation improves as they begin to understand the ways their home and school worlds are connected. I was going to have to do something quickly or risk losing those benefits for many of my students, and instead see my classroom duplicate the same sort of inequitable parent involvement that I saw at that first PTA meeting. The story of how I attempted to shift those dynamics is one of tiny victories, but it also shows how what we do in our own classrooms to address equity in parent participation can ripple out to affect the school as a whole.

Overcoming Communication Barriers

From the first week, when emails began to fly around in English asking parents to volunteer for important school roles, it became clear that communication was the key. Out of my class of 19 kindergarteners, 11 were Latina/o, two were African American, and six were white.

Right away, assumptions about both language and technology use created dividing lines. For example, five of my Spanish-speaking families had limited to no English, yet most parent-to-parent communication was happening without translation. This was especially ironic at a dual-immersion school where ostensibly everyone had committed to elevating the status of Spanish and making it the primary language. The other key problem related to the medium of communication. Only about half of my families regularly used email and at least one family did not have an email address at all, yet nearly all parent communication was happening via electronic means. I asked the advice of other teachers and talked to my room parents, and we started to negotiate some guidelines:

All communication must be bilingual, and Spanish always goes first. This applied to emails, letters home, handouts, homework packets, and sign-up sheets. This rule was championed by the most experienced bilingual teacher on my grade-level team, and we helped each other stick to it. For my room parents, it meant asking a bilingual parent or myself to translate or, in desperate situations, using Google translate and hoping someone could give it a quick look-over. Putting Spanish first was of symbolic as well as practical significance—it served to remind us all that we are committed to a bilingual environment, and that means that native English speakers have to get used to not having their language always come first. Also, it helped to elevate the status of Spanish in our school community, which is essential because children are sensitive to issues of language and power and will sometimes be resistant to learning and speaking languages that they perceive to be low-status.

Important communication cannot just be through email. As convenient as sending out notes through email may be, important communication must also go home in paper form in the weekly homework folders. This included invitations to classroom events, field trip notifications, notices about school or class policies, and invitations to volunteer. Often this meant that I used the same text, reformatted, for both an email and a letter attached to the homework packet. I also usually printed these out and taped them to the classroom door.

Sign-up opportunities have to be fair. This is especially important because there are usually limitations on how many parents can go on the bus or enter a field trip location for free. I had to think a bit about the best way to give parents equal chances to sign up for those spots. I settled on this routine: I would create a paper sign-up sheet and hang it on the door of the classroom. The sign-up sheet would have spots for parents who needed to ride on the school bus and spots for parents who volunteered to drive and pay for themselves. Then, at the morning circle, I specifically approached families I thought might not see the sign-up sheet on the door (because they didn’t pick up their kids in the afternoon) and who I knew didn’t use email. If they wanted to go, I signed them up on the sheet myself. Then I sent out an email advising parents that there was a sign-up sheet on the door. I also told parents that the spots that guaranteed free transport and entrance were reserved for families who needed them.

Teacher to parent communication needs to fit the family. I spent a good deal of time figuring out the best way to communicate with the families in my classroom, both by asking parents what they preferred, and through trial and error. For some families, email really did work best. For others, the best way to get a hold of them was a call home. For still more parents, text messages were the most effective. This can be tricky because not all teachers give out their personal cell phone numbers. Although it worked for me, other teachers might choose to use parent liaisons to text the families more easily reachable in that way. Also, services like Google Voice and some smartphone apps enable teachers to make calls or send group texts without giving out their personal information. By creating a profile in my mind of how to communicate best with each family, I was able to reach out in appropriate ways and ultimately get more families involved.

Determine which families require more concerted effort. Over the course of the year, I identified a couple of families who were trickier to loop into classroom communication in traditional ways, either because of work schedules or because home language literacy levels made reading print notices a challenge. So I tried to catch up with these families frequently in person—snagging them at any opportunity to just check in about how things were going, to personally invite them to important events, and to help, if necessary, with filling out forms and permission slips.

These strategies paid off in visible ways. Some of my native Spanish-speaking parents were the most involved, chaperoning all of the field trips and consistently coming to classroom events like writers’ celebrations, birthdays, and family reading parties. This was also the case for my three African American families. In fact, one of those families never missed a classroom event all year, and four generations showed up for our promotion ceremony.

However, when it came to the room parents, the parents who participated in the PTA or SSC, and the parents who came in weekly to volunteer in class, the majority were still from the same affluent group who dominated the schoolwide parent committees. Although that represented significant missed opportunities, it did fuel some interesting interactions that helped begin to shift the tone of parent dialogue.

Building Awareness

Throughout the year, I tried to be as explicit as possible about the reasons why I communicated with parents the way I did. I talked with my room parents about the importance of bilingual communications and about the necessity of sending paper copies of announcements home in the homework folder. When I wrote emails about the field trip sign-up sheets, I explained that I posted them on the door in order to give access to families who did not use email. As I worked through issues of equitable parent participation myself, I tried whenever possible to include parents in those conversations, even when I myself was not sure I was doing the right thing.

Near the end of the year, something interesting started happening. The parents in my class who were most explicitly involved in the operations of the school—the ones who were room parents, PTA members, and committee leads—started to bring up issues of equity themselves. One mom who was a fluent Spanish speaker approached me, wondering how she could help get more Spanish-speaking parents in to volunteer in the classroom. One of my room parents asked about how I thought she could best utilize phone trees and texting to reach the parents who were hard to get by email. Several parents who were active in the PTA wanted to talk about recruitment and retention of Latina/o families in the immersion program.

These conversations extended out into interactions with other parents as well. For example, during the last room-parent meeting of the year, one of the room parents from the other immersion classroom suggested that we coordinate the potluck on the last day of school through a Google Doc sign-up sheet. One of my room parents replied: “I don’t know about your class, but in our class we have a lot of families who don’t use email. Let’s print out a sign-up sheet to hang up on the doors as well, and also send something home in the folders. We want to make sure everyone can participate. I can volunteer to do the translation into Spanish, as long as someone will look it over.” I was so happy that the same parent who hadn’t thought twice about communicating entirely through English emails at the beginning of the year was now advocating for the diverse communication needs of the families in our class.

I came to realize that many of these parents had come to our school because they wanted a diverse environment for their children, but they didn’t necessarily know how to navigate within that environment themselves. The insensitivity to issues of equity wasn’t necessarily intentional. Sometimes it didn’t occur to the parents involved that their way of doing something might be alienating to other families. The conversations that we had in my classroom were a step, albeit a small one, toward opening up wider dialogues about these issues at the school level.

Missed Opportunities

Looking back on the year, I wanted to celebrate the victories without losing sight of the things that I would choose to do differently in the future. For instance, I had learned from other teachers that in many dual-immersion schools all classrooms must have a room parent who is a native Spanish speaker to partner with an English-speaking room parent. This simple expectation would have made an enormous difference in my classroom. It would have facilitated translation and made the classroom parent community feel more inclusive to a wider range of families. It also would have made it easier to do volunteer outreach to Spanish-speaking families and bring in more Spanish-speaking classroom volunteers to work directly with the kids. Especially in a bilingual program, there is so much need for students to have Spanish-speaking role models, and it is even better if they are from the parent community. It’s also important for these parents and their children to understand what an asset their language skills are in our classroom.

But, most importantly, I was acutely aware that the majority of those vital conversations I had with parents about equity happened with my room parents and a few other regular classroom volunteers, most of whom were from white middle-class families. Here I realized I was swayed by my own issues. As a white teacher, I felt more comfortable bringing up equity issues with the more privileged parents, particularly white parents, and those parents felt more comfortable bringing them up with me. If real changes were going to take place, however, everyone would need to be involved in the conversation.

New Beginnings

Armed with the knowledge of what had gone well and what had gone wrong during that first school year, I entered the current school year with a different set of priorities. My first priority was to find room parents who were native Spanish speakers. My second priority was to begin to have the conversations that I had avoided the previous year.

Instead of waiting for parents to volunteer for the room parent slots, I approached a couple of Spanish-speaking parents individually before Back to School Night and asked if they would be room parents. One accepted; the other politely declined and offered to volunteer in another way. At Back to School Night, I asked for volunteers and got one native Spanish speaker and one English-speaking parent. Thus, I had my team of three: one mother from Argentina and one from Mexico, both bilingual native Spanish speakers, and one white parent who spoke some Spanish.

That night I also sent around a list asking parents to specify how they wanted to be contacted—phone, text, or email. Then, my room parents and I set up contact lists and divided them up. One room mother would send bilingual emails, one would text, and the third would call the families who requested to be contacted by phone, all of whom happened to be Spanish speaking.

Mercedes, my room parent from Mexico, has been an extraordinary resource. Because she is willing to call the Spanish-speaking families to ask for volunteers, I’ve ended up with many Spanish-speaking volunteers doing classroom work—three who read with children during reading workshop and two who help out during art class. Thus, my students have Spanish language models from their community during the school day, and the Latina/o parents in my classroom are getting to know my room parents and each other through phone calls and working alongside each other in the classroom.

This system—that of divvying up the task of contacting families among my room parents—has led not only to increased involvement but also to a model of family engagement that is more sustainable for me as a teacher. When I need to get a piece of information to parents, whether it’s an invitation to a class party, a call for volunteers, or a reminder about parent conferences, I simply contact my room parents and they reach out to the others through phone calls, emails, and texts. As teachers, we have enough on our plates already, and finding a system of parent involvement that is both equitable and sustainable is a real boon. Partnering with bilingual room parents is even more crucial for teachers who are not bilingual themselves but work in communities where many families speak other languages.

Beginning with my own room parents, I started to have explicit conversations with parents of color about equity and involvement at our school. One of my Spanish-speaking room parents suggested creating a network of PTA/ELAC parent volunteers who could call Spanish-speaking families to invite them personally to the meetings. With the help of other bilingual parents, we were able to coordinate this before the first PTA and ELAC meetings of the year for about half of the classes in the school. There is talk about expanding this in the future to include all classes and also to reach out to African American families in a similar way. I also recently began attending a series of morning meetings with parents about increasing family involvement, hosted by my principal. That has given me the chance to talk to Latina/o and African American parents about how both the teachers and the parent community could be more welcoming; they have shared ideas that range from making sure that the Wednesday folders go home consistently, alternating PTA meeting times between morning and afternoon, advertising translation at meetings, and reminding teachers how important it is to smile and say hello to parents when they see them in the mornings.

Ripples of Change

Although we have a long way to go, these conversations with parents across our school community seem to be bearing some fruit. At the end of the first year, a parent from my classroom volunteered to head a committee focused on recruiting and maintaining Latina/o families at our school. Another made a presentation in Spanish at our new kindergarten family orientation appealing to Spanish-speaking families to volunteer in classrooms and join the PTA. I committed to presenting at a staff meeting to share with other teachers the strategies I had used for parent communication and engagement. This year, parents are talking about holding some PTA meetings in Spanish with English translation, and about changing the structure of the PTA meetings to allow for small group break-out sessions to foster more participation. Also, as I have become more involved with the SSC, I have been able to connect and brainstorm with parents of older students who have been thinking and talking about these issues for a while.

There is still a lot to be done, both in my classroom and at the school level, to rectify the exclusive patterns of parent participation I observed at the beginning of last year. As long as the PTA focuses exclusively on fundraising and pressures parents to make large personal donations, many families will continue to feel alienated and decide not to participate. As long as the SSC has no African American members and includes mostly parents from the school’s immersion track, many of the students at our school will have no one to advocate for their needs. And, although it is important to reach out to Spanish-speaking Latina/o families, it is essential that we also focus time and attention on including and empowering African American families and other families of color.

It’s not easy, but I think that substantive change is possible if we begin to talk about these issues instead of leaving them unexplored. At the beginning of the year, a friend of mine who is also a public school parent reminded me that, especially in elementary school, teachers train parents what to expect when it comes to how they should and should not be involved in their children’s schools. Those lessons shape how parents interact with future teachers and future school communities. This serves as a constant reminder to me that we are always communicating, through the phrasing of every note home, through the positioning of every sign-up sheet. We are communicating about who we expect to be involved and how. We are either opening up dialogues with parents or closing them off. And all of those decisions, both the small ones and the large ones, reach beyond our classrooms. If we want equitable schools, we need to be as intentional about how we involve parents as we are about how we educate their children.

Grace Cornell Gonzales is an editorial associate at Rethinking Schools and a bilingual kindergarten teacher in San Francisco.

Illustrator Bec Young’s print work can be found at justseeds.org.