Imagine sitting at a table in a classroom with your child's teacher. He's talking to you while holding a report card and folder with your child's name on it, but you don't understand what he's saying. You're uncomfortable maintaining eye contact with him and want to say something, anything, but you don't know what. So you're silent and can only nod. About 15 minutes later, you walk away feeling confused and frustrated; the teacher, likewise.

It may sound like a bad dream, but for some parents who are new to this country or who have limited English abilities, this is a common outcome of parent-teacher conferences. And for a while, it was the experience of many Chinese-, Korean-, and Spanish-speaking families who were uncomfortable participating in activities at their children's schools in Ellicott City, Md. The language barrier was compounded by cultural differences—the active student participation expected in U.S. schools may be viewed as disrespectful behavior elsewhere, and for many of these parents, involvement in their children's education was unheard of unless there was a problem.

One parent group, Hollifield Station Elementary PTA, found an inspired way to bridge these gaps. The group, with the help of district coordinators, organized an event called American Culture Night. It was so successful that immigrant families are connecting with the school—and getting involved in the PTA.

Lost in Translation

Late into her first year as president of Hollifield Station Elementary School PTA, Linda Dombrowski was concerned. It seemed to her that Hollifield, home to some 100 immigrant families—the county's largest school population of nonnative English speakers—was experiencing a culture clash. Reports from teachers about parents feeling lost at school and a general lack of success with their parent-teacher conferences were echoing in the school's hallways. "A majority of [our] parents are foreign-born," Dombrowski says, "and when they had conferences, English was a barrier."

Hoping to chip away at these barriers, Dombrowski surveyed teachers about how to make immigrant families feel more at home at Hollifield. The top recommendations were to improve the parent-teacher conference process and give parents with limited English a better understanding of their children's curriculum, performance measurement criteria, classroom activities, and customs in general. Dombrowski added another item: Make immigrant parents feel comfortable enough to share their talents and time with the school.

Reaching Out for Help

Reaching out to international families at Hollifield meant that Dombrowski would have to cross some language borders. She teamed up with Kimberly Kim, distric ESOL liaison, and Young-chan Han, family outreach specialist. The three worked during the early summer weeks and sketched out plans for American Culture Night, to be held in October.

By July, they had crafted a night of activities and presentations covering topics as varied as school policy, curriculum, holiday celebrations, the code of conduct, tardiness and attendance policies, and even bus procedures. Specifically, Dombrowski says, "The goal of the evening was to help parents feel connected, comfortable, and confident with the education their children were receiving."

Getting the Word Out, and Families In

Han and Dombrowski knew, though, that no matter how well-planned the event, getting immigrant parents to attend American Culture Night would depend on how welcoming and clear the invitation was. Han says the list of invited families was generated from a survey, sent earlier in the year, that asked whether they needed translation or interpretation services. The district ESOL office's staff of certified interpreters and translators began publicizing the event in July by mailing flyers translated into Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, and Urdu.

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Interpreters also followed up with personal phone calls. According to Han, an invitation of this sort was foreign to many parents, and several of them initially thought the request to come to school meant that their children were in trouble. "Lots of parents were asking, 'Why? Is everything okay?'" she says. In the weeks before the event, Han had her staff of interpreters make a second call to families to encourage their participation. They also urged attendees to share a dish and offered on-site baby-sitting services, provided by Hollifield's art teacher.

Inside the American Classroom

Some 50 parents came to the first American Culture Night, which began with a brief presentation about holidays and themes tied into the school's curriculum with in-school celebrations. While about 30 kids hung out and drew with Travers, the parents rotated, interpreters on hand, through mini-presentations on four topics: school policies, classroom culture, athletics and competition, and parent-teacher conferences.

For the last, certified interpreters who had received specialized training led families through a mock parent-teacher conference to explain teacher expectations and effective communication techniques. The enactment was so realistic, Dombrowski says, that one of the parents in attendance shouted, "That happened to me!"

The station on classroom culture gave parents a chance to learn behaviors that are uniquely American—like the need for students to maintain eye contact with teachers and to participate frequently in classroom discussions. In other cultures, and particularly in Korea, Han says, students are told to look down and away from elders and teachers and not to question authority, unlike in the United States. In addition, parents are discouraged from getting involved with their children's homework, and meetings of parent groups are unheard of. "PTA is so foreign, and their role is so foreign," Han says. "Parents involved in education is foreign."

That began changing for the families at American Culture Night as they sat at their children's desks and took in the classroom experience. "Parents felt so comfortable in school asking questions and walking around classrooms," Han says. For Dombrowski, one of the highlights was being able to tell parents who had little to no understanding of the PTA's role, "This is what we do.…We do this for our kids."

A Multinational Sensation

By all accounts, American Culture Night was a success. On an evaluation form sent immediately following the event, families rated the parent-teacher conference and classroom culture sessions as the most informative and indicated that the rest of the presentations were extremely worthwhile. Many parents also took the first step toward greater involvement: They provided suggestions. Topic recommendations for future events included raising children to be independent, leadership in American society, and dealing with misbehavior driven by cultural differences. Leaders already at work on next year's American Culture Night plan to incorporate these suggestions.

Dombrowski and Han also spun the momentum into another event for the international community. In May, to celebrate Older Americans Month and Asian Heritage Month, the Hollifield PTA and Han's ESOL office teamed with Howard County's Office on Aging, the state attorney's office, and the Korean-American Senior Association. The result was an intergenerational dance, with line-dancing lessons, light aerobics, and Caribbean steel-drum music.

For the Hollifield PTA, the ocean that used to separate international families and the school seems to be receding. The picture of involvement now is more vivid, more colorful, and a whole lot clearer for immigrant families. Because of American Culture Night, parents are aware of the school's desire for them to be partners.

"If all goes well, we are turning over a number of our teacher events, like conference dinners and appreciation, to our Korean parents to run," she says. "You can't have expectations without communication."

Tips for Parent Group Leaders

Although your school system may not have ESOL services as comprehensive as Howard County (Md.) Public Schools' Family & Community Outreach Office, there are still opportunities for parent groups to help immigrant families assimilate at school.

Here are some of Young-chan Han's tips for effectively reaching out to the families in your community.

Use your school newsletter (and volunteer surveys) to recruit bilingual parent volunteers. They can help with simple phone calls and other contacts with parents who speak little or no English.

In reaching out to Asian families, use simple printed or typed messages on flyers. Many Asian families can read simple notes. Han says to avoid cursive writing, as it's not always taught in other countries.

For Hispanic parents, phone calls are generally more effective than printed material. Have a Spanish-speaking staff member, parent volunteer, or bilingual liaison make the contact.

Avoid using educational jargon in your outgoing messages. Spell out proper names (avoid acronyms), including those for state aptitude tests and even your parent group's name.

Contact ethnic organizations such as Korean churches, Muslim community organizations, and Hispanic organizations to recruit bilingual volunteers to help communicate with families learning English. Sometimes you can find help at ethnic businesses, too, such as Chinese restaurants.

Create a bilingual welcoming committee at school made up of parents, staff, and community members. This is a great way to support parents who are new to the country.

More on Outreach

It's important, says ESOL Parent Liaison Young-chan Han, for parent groups to recognize the challenges most frequently faced by parents who are English-language learners. Those include: language, transportation, child care, unfamiliar school culture, and time constraints.

She notes that parents with foreign last names are not automatically limited English speakers; parent groups need to be sensitive to this fact.

Han adds that many Asian parents use computers and rely heavily on the school's website. But, she says, keep in mind that many families new to this country, especially low income families, do not own computers. At one meeting she attended with seven Hispanic parents of middle school students, none of the families owned a computer.

Han's final advice for parent groups reaching out to international families: "It may take a long time for parents to feel comfortable. Be patient with the outcome. Don't think they're unreachable."