BC Study Looks for Ways Watertown Schools Can Connect with Non-English Speakers

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Students from a wide variety of cultures and nations fill the classrooms of the Watertown Public Schools, and a study by Boston College researchers seeks to make sure all families are included in what is going on at school.

Wednesday night, Rebecca Lowenhaupt, an assistant professor at BC’s Lynch School of Education, told the School Committee that Watertown parents, in general, have a high participation rate in school activities, but the story is different for recent immigrants.

“You have a high attendance of parents at back to school night of PreK through eighth grade – 95 percent were in attendance or reached out at that time,” Lowenhaupt said. “While there is a high attendance rate for PreK-8, there is a lower rate for those who first language is not English.”

About 11 percent of the students in the Watertown schools are in the English Language Learner (also known as ESL) program, and they speak 28 different languages, with the most common being Portuguese, Spanish, Armenian, Arabic and Pashto. After the United States, the most common country of origin for Watertown students in 2016 is Pakistan, said ESL Coordinator Yvonne Endara.

These parents are less likely to attend back to school night, the step up event when students move from elementary to middle school and middle to high school.

“Some said they didn’t know or were hesitant to go because they would not be able to understand,” Lowenhaupt said.

Non-English speakers also said they did not know they could request translation services.

It’s not that the non-English speaking parents don’t want to participate, Lowenhaupt said. While doing the research she met with groups of parents, who were eager to talk.

“They used it as an opportunity to share their issues about the schools,” she said.

Lowenhaupt said there are some steps that can be taken to improve connections between the schools and non-English speaking parents: minimize barriers to parent participation (time and scheduling), and identify ways to build bridges and relationships.

Communications to homes where the parents do not speak English, or not well, proved difficult.

School Committee member Candace Miller said the district could use the Google tab to translate the webpage into 100 languages. Lowenhaupt said the website was not often used by this group of parents, and text seemed to be the best way to get word out. Papers sent home with students work, too, but they must have enough time to find someone who can translate it for them.

Watertown parent Lindy DeLorio, who teaches ESL in another district, said that Facebook also has a translation function that can make it a good way to communicate.

The most successful communication is from a parent or someone at the school who speaks their language and can help communicate, Lowenhaupt said. Also, a call home from the right person can help, too.

“It helped with someone reached out on the phone who they trust,” Lowenhaupt said.

In one case, a Portuguese speaking teachers aide at the middle school became the conduit for Portuguese speaking parents at the school.

School Committee member Eileen Hsu-Balzer said the presentation touched her personally.

“My mother did not speak English and didn’t participate in school. And she didn’t come from a culture where parents participated in school,” Hsu-Balzer said. “There was a moment in eight grade when someone on the PTO reached out to her and got her to get involved by bringing refreshments. It really changed things.”

The district will be forming parent groups for three different languages – Portuguese, Spanish and Pashto – to enable more communication and bridge building, Lownehaupt said.

While this helps with languages with a large group of families, having a coordinator or staff member for each language would be hard when the district has 28 languages, Lowenhaupt said.

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