Schools deepen connections with ELL parents

How families can develop skills to better support their students
By: | August 1, 2019
Principal Ryan Specht, of At Washington Elementary School in Norfolk, Nebraska, has teamed up with nearby Northeast Community College to hold ELL workshops for parents and children.Principal Ryan Specht, of At Washington Elementary School in Norfolk, Nebraska, has teamed up with nearby Northeast Community College to hold ELL workshops for parents and children.

When Carol Behel surveyed parents of her elementary school English language learners, an overwhelming majority said they didn’t know how to help their children with reading or math assignments.

“I find it’s very important that parents feel comfortable to come into the school and join us in what we’re doing,” says Behel, the current Alabama Teacher of the Year who first came to the U.S. from her native Guatemala as a 17-year-old exchange student.

In spring 2019, Behel, who teaches at Florence City Schools’ Weeden Elementary, set up a resource room for parents who are learning English. Using six laptops donated by the district, the parents worked on the same literacy program that their children used in class. The room was open during school days, and a student intern from the University of North Alabama was available to assist parents.

Behel also hosted regular meetings with parents to check their progress and provide additional one-on-one tutoring. This fall, she hopes to turn over the program to two mothers who served as mentors. “If children see parents working on things at home, the children can help,” Behel says. “When families are reading aloud, parents and children can correct each other.”

Open lines of communication

At Washington Elementary School in Norfolk, Nebraska, Principal Ryan Specht has teamed up with nearby Northeast Community College to hold ELL workshops for parents and children twice per week. The program will begin with the new school year.

One session will focus on language while the other covers soft skills that enable parents to improve their connection with the school and its educators, Specht says.


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“We want to give them a better idea of what a parent-teacher conference looks like and the types of questions they should ask,” Specht says. “We want them to know what kind of communication they can expect from the school and what our expectations are for the students.”

Some Buffalo public schools in danger of state takeover have shown improvement since the upstate New York district launched Saturday academies where parents and children under 16 can learn side by side.

Some Buffalo public schools in danger of state takeover have shown improvement since the upstate New York district launched Saturday academies where parents and children under 16 can learn side by side.

The sessions will be held at the school and taught by instructors from the community college. Starting in January, each participating parent will be invited into their child’s classroom. Observing instruction will prepare them to help their children with classwork and homework, Specht says.

“Anytime you can connect home to school and give resources to our families, and open that line of communication to the teacher, it will only benefit our students,” he says.

Creating skilled parents

Research has shown that student achievement and attendance improves

when ELL parents learn alongside their children, says Patricia Lovett, a team leader at the National Center for Families Learning, a nonprofit that has developed curriculum and professional development to help families escape poverty.

“A key piece is giving parents a chance to come into the classroom and build their own skills so they can be stronger supporters for their children,” Lovett says.


Read more: How 5 districts are breaking down language barriers in education


As part of the organization’s PD, schools and districts are encouraged to hold regular family workshops in which educators can discuss the concepts being taught to children, explain assessment procedures, and provide student progress updates. Educators should translate information whenever possible and avoid jargon when communicating with parents, Lovett says.

Educators and parents can also work together to develop the academic and social-emotional strategies that will be most conducive to a child’s success, she says. The result: When parents feel more confident about helping their children, education becomes a higher priority. “We do see parents’ attitudes and understanding of their roles in regard to the school changing a lot,” Lovett says.

“This does take a real commitment from the school because teachers are inviting parents into classrooms and making it a welcoming space.”