Reflecting the changing demographics of the United States, students in our schools are more diverse than ever. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, from 1993-2003, minorities increased as a percentage of total public school enrollment, from 34 percent to 41 percent. That means your school’s parent engagement initiatives should include strategies to reach families who may not share the same language, culture or ethnicity.
While the focus is often on the challenges of engaging families of different backgrounds, a diverse school environment can yield many opportunities. “With diverse perspectives and insights, classroom discussions become more dynamic,” writes Eileen Kugler on her Embrace Diverse Schools blog. “Students learn to question more, to think more deeply, and to collaborate effectively with those who are different from themselves. They become better problem-solvers, understanding that there is more than one ‘right perspective.’ … But this enriched learning environment doesn’t take place in every multicultural school. Only when immigrant students feel truly connected to school will they engage in their learning and share their own wisdom.”
Here are some strategies to help connect culturally diverse students and families.
Remember what we have in common. With all the time constraints and responsibilities that educators juggle, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed by the barriers to connection and engagement. But in spite of their external differences, it’s important to remember that all parents want their children to succeed.
“We need to examine our assumptions about families,” write the authors of Beyond the Bake Sale. “Do we expect all parents to respond the same way that middle-class parents do? When they don’t come to events at school, we may think, ‘They don’t care’ or ‘They don’t value education.’ . . . We suggest that your team start with this premise: All families, no matter what their income, race, education, language, or culture, want their children to do well in school — and can make an important contribution to their children’s learning.”
Know your population. Every family has its own unique strengths and challenges to engagement. For some families, language may be a barrier while others may need to overcome past cultural expectations for how they interact with educators. Some parents may have received a high level of education in their home country while others received very little.
That’s why you’ll want to learn as much as possible about individual families as well as the culture of the countries they represent. Some schools have implemented parent surveys to gather information about languages spoken at home, cultural practices and traditions, and scheduling and transportation needs. (For more ideas about survey questions, see this Culturally Responsive Parental Involvement booklet. Although it was published more than a decade ago, it still contains relevant information.) Home visits are another way to connect with families on a personal level. To learn more about different cultures, consider visiting ethnic grocery stores, places of worship, or community centers. Or ask families if they have cultural resources that could be shared to build understanding among staff and other families.
Review your current parent engagement efforts. Many common parent engagement strategies have been around for decades and were designed with middle-class families in mind. As you learn more about the population in your school, evaluate your current strategies and determine if they are welcoming to culturally diverse families. If many of your activities revolve around fundraising, be sure to balance those activities with ones that focus on educational outcomes, such as sharing grade-level standards or strategies for parents to use with their children at home. If you’re working with families that are new to the American educational system, they may need basic information about filling out paperwork or communicating with their child’s teacher. As much as possible, try to personalize and follow up on communications. Parents who are reluctant to engage with educators may dismiss a flyer that’s been sent to everyone, assuming that it’s not meant for them.
As proven in randomized control trials, the FAST® (Families & Schools Together) Program has achieved successful outcomes with culturally diverse populations. While 40 percent of FAST is fixed, the other 60 percent has aspects that can be adapted to fit the local culture. For example, at the first FAST Session, each family designs a flag that represents each individual in the family, and the family as a unit, and the flag is displayed at the family’s table for each meeting. Team members strive to respect and honor the strengths of each family participating in the weekly sessions.
Engaging culturally diverse populations requires patience, but the payoff is worth it — for families, for your community and for the futures of individual children. “Diversity improves the way people think,” concludes the authors of this New York Times article. “By disrupting conformity, racial and ethnic diversity prompts people to scrutinize facts, think more deeply and develop their own opinions. Our findings show that diversity actually benefits everyone, minorities and majority alike.”