School districts with high concentrations of English-learner students are facing a new challenge in ensuring that parents who need language translation are informed of their role under the funding formula for schools.
California’s new Local Control Funding Formula emphasizes the importance of parental involvement in guiding school spending decisions. Parent advocates and district employees alike say they see the new emphasis as an opportunity to expand and deepen the involvement of parents in ways that haven’t happened before. Some parents, however, don’t think the efforts are going far enough.
Four districts – Oakland, San Jose, West Contra Costa and Fresno – are addressing the challenges of reaching out to parents of English learners. The districts offer translation services through real-time meeting interpreting through headsets, bilingual PowerPoint presentations, translated written materials, bilingual discussion facilitators and meetings held in Spanish and Hmong.
District employees are also consulting with their District English Learner Advisory Committees, comprised mostly of English-learner parents, and partnering with community organizations to reach parents. Going a step further, Fresno Unified is working to engage its Hmong parents who don’t read or write Hmong.
West Contra Costa Unified and Fresno have already had several parent meetings, with Spanish interpreters for parents. Oakland and San Jose are using existing committees and organizations to reach out to parents whose native language isn’t English; both districts have community meetings on the funding formula planned for late February and March.
An explanation of the funding formula is prominently displayed on the West Contra Costa district’s website, with a link to the Spanish translation. According to the California Department of Education, 83 percent of the English learners in the West Contra Costa school district speak Spanish. The district scheduled six community meetings at schools in January and February, and Spanish interpreters and child care were provided at all of the meetings, said Marin Trujillo, community engagement coordinator and spokesperson for the district.
“All written materials, email communications and autodialer calls are in English and Spanish,” Trujillo said.
More than 570 parents attended the meetings, about half of whom were Spanish-speaking. After the explanation of the new funding law – which included PowerPoint presentations in Spanish and English – parents broke into smaller groups where bilingual facilitators led the discussions and recorded the parent responses. When the group was mostly Spanish-speaking, Trujillo said, the discussions were in Spanish.
The responses are being translated to be included in a summary report, to be printed in both Spanish and English, to help the district develop its Local Control and Accountability Plan, which all districts are required to produce. The plan spells out how districts will use the additional money they’ll receive under the funding formula.
More work needed
Some parents, however, say districts aren’t doing enough.
Stephanie Sequeira, co-chair of the West County district’s Multilingual District Advisory Committee, said she wasn’t impressed with the presentation at the meeting she attended.
She said district representatives explained what they were planning to do at the meetings, but by the time they asked for input, some people had left.
“I don’t think it is really being explained to parents of English learners,” she said. “It was translated, but I don’t think they understood about parent involvement.”
Sequeira said she will recruit more Spanish-speaking parents to get involved.
“Outreaching to parents in general is a challenge,” acknowledged Sandy Mendoza, advocacy manager at Families In School, a Los Angeles-based parent advocacy group.
Districts aren’t adapting well enough to that challenge, she said.
“It does take serious investment of time and resources to discuss district priorities and reconcile (them) against needs of English learners, foster youth and low-income students,” Mendoza said in an email. “The thing is that while school districts have a new finance model, they are still using old school methods to communicate it. Modes of communications aren’t improving fast enough. Schools haven’t figured out how to discuss issues in the context that parents can get it.”
Still other districts are using existing partnerships with parents to enhance outreach efforts. In Oakland Unified, parent advocate organizations and district employees are meeting to develop an effective plan to involve all parents, including English-learner parents, in decision making around the funding formula.
“We want to make sure it is a collective effort and not just the district developing a plan, presenting it to the communities and saying give us your feedback,” said Pecolia Manigo, program director at the Bay Area Parent Leadership Action Network, which is working with the district. “Usually the engagement is missing at the beginning of the process.”
Partnering with parents
Manigo said the effort is focusing on the district’s English learner advisory committee and other organizations that already engage parents of English learners. Organizers are also working with school sites to get the word out to parents to make sure they know about the upcoming community forums.
The district has scheduled four forums in March, said Nicole Knight, director of the English Language Learners Office in Oakland. Interpreters will be provided at the forums, and surveys, focus groups and meeting notes will record parent feedback.
The district routinely prints written materials in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Cantonese, Arabic and Cambodian, Knight said.
Oakland’s website includes FAQs about LCFF in English, Spanish and Chinese; 76 percent of the district’s English learners speak Spanish and almost 7.5 percent speak Cantonese.
In San Jose, Traci Cook, public information officer for the school district, said the district is using data collected from parents who participated in an extensive strategic planning process in 2012 to help develop that district’s local accountability plan around the funding formula. She said the district is planning a series of community meetings on the funding formula in late February.
Margaret Petkiewicz, elementary manager of bilingual programs and English Learner services for the district, said the LCFF was presented at the last meeting of the district’s English learner committee and the members of the school site councils are being encouraged to make recommendations to their principals. The minutes of the meetings record parental input. Cook said Spanish interpreters attend all parent meetings; 85 percent of the district’s English learners speak Spanish.
Fresno’s school district has two major English-learner populations; 78 percent of the English learners speak Spanish and 16 percent speak Hmong. Tammy Townsend, executive officer of state and federal programs for Fresno Unified, said they have had three LCFF meetings specifically for parents of English learners. Parents are asked which language they prefer and through headsets providing real-time interpreting, follow the meeting in Spanish or Hmong. Five community-based organizations are recruiting parents to attend an additional meeting; the district will provide interpreters and child care.
“We partner with the organizations to reach people that we might not normally reach,” Townsend said. “We want to get feedback from parents we don’t always hear from.”
Parents are asked for their input on forms printed in English, Spanish and Hmong. Townsend said they’ve received more than 295 feedback forms from parents of English learners, the majority in Spanish and Hmong. The feedback information is being translated into English.
One of the meetings revealed an unexpected challenge – many of the Hmong parents do not read or write Hmong. Working with the Center for New Americans, a nonprofit immigrant aid organization, the district has planned a meeting that will be conducted in Hmong, and organizers will record the oral feedback.
The funding law offers a new opportunity to districts, Townsend said.
“It’s inspired new ways to reach parents,” she said. “It’s a different conversation than in the past.”
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