Addressing the Achievement Gap – For teachers and school administrators wanting to help Hispanic parents…

I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.

~ Nelson Mandela

Allow me to share Chapter 6.4 of Beyond Words – A Radically Simple Solution to Unify Communities, Strengthen Businesses, and Connect Cultures Through Language.

First of all, if you are in education at any level, OMG—You guys ROCK! I wish, I WISH we as a society didn’t make your jobs so hard. But thank YOU for your passion, commitment, and contribution.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you about the achievement gap—the unconscionable difference in performance between minority students and white students. I know you must tear your hair out when you see the difference in reading, writing, and math scores, and that you are working each school year to close the gap.

Of course, the issue is complicated, and many factors can contribute to the achievement gap.

One contributing factor that has been identified by numerous studies relates to “Parental (or Family) Engagement.” Parents who do not know, or do not understand, the programs and services that schools provide may not be as involved as parents who are informed and engaged.

School districts around the nation are trying hard to address this disparity, and have been doing so for many years (as with school busing). In most schools here in Metro Denver, which includes half a dozen or more different school districts, you will find a “parent liaison” who is tasked with engaging the parents and keeping them up to date with what is happening.

However, when cultural differences combine with a language barrier, the problem can be amplified.

Parents who do not speak English at home (parents who did not learn English as a child and currently speak a non-English language in the home) are less likely than other parents to attend a general school meeting or school event, or to volunteer or serve on a committee, or the PTA.

Parents who do not speak English well may feel less comfortable or less welcome getting involved in their children’s schools.

Fluent communication between parents and teachers can lead to increased academic performance, positive social outcomes for children, and permanence in schools, as well as enable teachers to identify learning problems at an earlier age.

When teachers lack understanding of the cultural context of children and families, it can hinder children’s development.

“When schools, families, and community groups work together to support learning, children tend to do better in school, stay in school longer, and like school more,” according to the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory.

According to the organization, students with involved parents are more likely to:

·        Earn higher grades and test scores, and enroll in higher-level programs

·        Be promoted, pass their classes, and earn credits

·        Attend school regularly

·        Have better social skills, show improved behavior, and adapt well to school

·        Graduate and go on to postsecondary education (Henderson & Mapp, 2002).

·        Improve family income

Working to include parents is particularly important as students grow older and attend schools with high concentrations of poor and minority students (Rutherford et al., 1997).

Some suggestions for fostering parent/family engagement are:

·        Help families with parenting and child-rearing skills

·        Communicate with families about school programs and student progress and needs

·        Work to improve recruitment, training, and schedules to involve families as volunteers in school activities

·        Encourage families to be involved in learning activities at home

·        Include parents as participants in important school decisions

·        Coordinate with businesses and agencies to provide resources and services for families, students, and the community (Epstein, 2001)

Some parent liaisons are bilingual, and they are doing their best. But even bilingual isn’t enough: Denver Public Schools support 83 distinct languages.

Many schools and parent liaisons create welcome events for the parents to come and get to know the school and each other. Potluck dinners are common.

But what happens at a casual gathering like this?

At most of these events, the English speakers go to one side of the gym, and the Spanish speakers go to the other.

Now consider the ShareLingo model, where it can be a “potluck with a purpose”—the purpose being to bring English and Spanish speakers together to practice.

When we bring a group of Spanish-speaking parents into the school to practice with a group of English-speaking teachers, administrators, and other parents, it forms a bond. The conversation topics and language vocabulary focus on the things important to everyone in the room: how to help kids who are struggling, the importance of reading at home, the programs and services available to families, and school safety issues.

ShareLingo support materials are tailored to meet the school and parent needs. Almost any of your school’s bilingual materials can be incorporated. The important thing is to follow the ShareLingo model: capitalize on each participant’s innate desire to understand and to be understood.

This kind of multicultural meeting represents parental engagement at its highest level. The parents are physically coming into the school and engaging, through language learning, with the people they are most afraid of—the teachers and administrators. As the fear and misunderstanding are eliminated, confidence and trust are built. Participants on BOTH sides open up and begin to understand the other’s culture.

For you see, the misunderstandings and fears are not limited to just the immigrants!

In the Montbello neighborhood in North Denver, some schools are over 95 percent Hispanic. The teaching staff, meanwhile, is over 80 percent White. It’s not that the district only hires Whites! The district is trying desperately to hire more diversity—sometimes even marketing to Puerto Rico and other Latin American countries for teachers!

We have another huge problem in our country. We don’t pay our teachers nearly enough. It is a sad reality that it is very difficult to support a family on a teacher’s salary. So this means that many teachers are young, enthusiastic kids, really. Many are fresh out of college. They’re wonderful people who want to make a difference in the world. But many have not been exposed to the realities of the communities they may be teaching in.

Where I’m leading to is the fact that it is not just the immigrants who need to learn about our culture. We need to learn about and understand their culture and realities as well.

It’s easy for a teacher to think, “Why don’t these parents make their kids do their homework?” Well, perhaps the parents themselves aren’t able to help. It could be because of a lack of education on their part. Or it could be that they are working two or three jobs just to make ends meet. And perhaps there isn’t a nice quiet study place for the kids to do their homework. If lots of people are all living in a one- or two-bedroom apartment, it can be difficult to get quiet time. And it can be difficult to set aside time to do the homework.

When we can bring the parents into the school and start real, trusting conversations, these kinds of topics can be raised without fear or judgment. The friendly, collaborative nature of the ShareLingo program leads to real insights in both directions. Parents find out it’s ok to ask questions (something they may NEVER do in their own countries), and educators can find out more about how they can help the parents and families help their kids.

****** Dear Teacher or Administrator. I hope that you agree with the potential of this program for your school. If you would like to implement a ShareLingo style program in your school, please contact me – I want to help – and ShareLingo has a free course that you can put into practice immediately at

Thank you for what you do.

James Archer

James Archer is the founder of The ShareLingo Project - a Social Enterprise that connects English and Spanish speakers for face-to-face practice. This model breaks down both linguistic and cultural barriers for individuals, businesses, and non-profits.

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