Thanks to the dual-language program at Reed Elementary in Kuna, Idaho, all school announcements and flyers are made in both English and Spanish. With one bilingual classroom per grade, it’s not unusual to hear students and teachers using both languages to communicate.

But it hasn’t been easy for English- and Spanish-speaking parents to connect. Last year, the PTO took significant steps to bring together families of different cultures, earning it the award for Outstanding Outreach to a Diverse School Community in the 2014 National Parent Group of the Year search.

Years ago, the K-6 school had a parent group, but it disbanded because of a lack of parent leadership. Spanish-speaking families in the dual-language program formed their own small, unofficial group as part of a project led by a teacher working on her master’s thesis. Three years ago, the school’s then-principal asked parents to try again for a real PTO. Seven parents stepped forward to lead the charge.

The Reed PTO had success from the start. With a school enrollment of 650, activities attracted 300 or more people. Fundraising efforts brought in $18,000 in eight months and enabled the school to turn a grassy field and small blacktop into a playground for students in grades 3 through 6.

Success attracts volunteers, and in the PTO’s second year more parents got involved. But the PTO did not reflect the school’s diversity. The Spanish-speaking parent group operated separately. Parents wanted to unite their two groups.

“Our goal for the [2013-14] year was to begin to tackle the large task of unifying our diverse parent and student populations and promote multiculturalism,” says president Lisa Gamboa. “Both groups began to discuss activities and traditions that were important to each, and how some of these might work for the next school year.”

Parents began thinking about how to structure PTO meetings so everyone could participate, including parents who speak only Spanish. The PTO reached a turning point when Erika Ambriz, a bilingual parent, was recruited and given the title of vice president of communication. Her first task was to provide translation services so the two groups could talk to each other.

“This was a major obstacle in the past,” Gamboa says. “There was no consistent person to help both groups communicate, and sometimes there were no translators at all.”

That made interaction between parents uncomfortable and frustrating. But now, with a bridge between Spanish-speaking and English-speaking parents, the groups started to meld.

The PTO made other changes to bring Spanish-speaking parents into the fold. The group began alternating meeting times between the afternoon and the evening to allow more people to participate. Although meeting attendance fluctuated, more people had the opportunity to join in.

Next, the PTO provided free babysitting by middle school students so parents could focus on the meeting, and looked for Spanish-speaking sitters.

Gradually, PTO meetings became more reflective of the school community. And as the PTO planned activities, members worked to incorporate multiculturalism.

A taco and tamale sale was an early success. The PTO and the dual-language parent group joined forces for the sale. Mexican-American families brought homemade tamales, and parents who didn’t know how to make them bought them at a local store and donated them for resale. Home-baked goods and donations from a local Latino bakery helped the sale earn a record profit.

“It was one of the first indicators that working together we could be more effective than we ever could be working independently,” Gamboa says, adding that the success of the sale also proved that the dual-language program would benefit from the unified PTO.

Before a children’s author visited the school, the PTO arranged for materials to be translated into Spanish for the evening parent program. At a family reading night, kids played a bilingual picture game and told stories in Spanish and English.

For the most elaborate celebration of the year, the PTO planned a week of multicultural events, including Children’s Day, which is celebrated on April 30 in Mexico. The school started celebrating the occasion a few years earlier, and the tradition was becoming an important part of the school’s culture. The unified parent group made sure this year’s plans were the biggest yet. The celebration included dances from five cultures: Mexico, Israel, Native America, New Zealand, and their own state—Idaho’s official state dance is the square dance. Students and volunteer dance instructors practiced for a month and performed at a schoolwide assembly.

At the end of multicultural week, the PTO fulfilled a longtime goal of holding a carnival. They chose an international theme featuring seven nations or cultures: Mexico, Samoa, Native America, Japan, Bosnia, Spain/Basque Country, and Russia. A classroom was devoted to each culture, and students enjoyed games, crafts, and food from each. For example, in the Japan room, kids held relay races carrying various objects with chopsticks and learned Japanese paper-folding. The event included traditional carnival games in the gymnasium.

The PTO made a conscious effort to focus on countries with smaller groups represented at the school, such as Samoa and China. “For people who may feel different, we hope the focus on their country made them feel special,” says parent volunteer Tonya White. “Everyone totally loved it.”

The Reed Elementary PTO still has a long way to go, says Gamboa, who is returning for another year as president. Last year a Spanish-speaking mother stepped forward, full of ideas. Gamboa hopes other parents will feel increasingly comfortable getting involved. “These are the people we are trying to target,” she says. “We want them to feel like they’re part of the planning process.”


3 Tips for Multicultural Outreach

Learn how education works in your families’ native countries. In many cultures, parents are expected to stay out of school business. Parents may think it is disrespectful to bring up an issue in the school that could be improved upon.

Talk to parents about specific barriers they face in being involved at school. At Reed Elementary, not all parents drive. Some parents take a bus or walk to school to pick up their kids and do not have a way to return in the evening for a PTO meeting.

Don’t push too hard. Parent group leaders are known for enthusiasm, but too much effervescence may confuse or scare off a potential volunteer who doesn’t speak English fluently. Start small, with a personal invitation to a family movie night or a fun, straightforward volunteer assignment, such as preparing food for an event.