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To Help Immigrants Succeed, Parents Work With Schools To Overcome Language Barrier

E'nkul Kanakan
Portland Empowered (courtesy photo)
Parents and Educators gather at a "shared space cafe" hosted at Portland's Riverton Elementary School.

For someone new to Maine, particularly if they have come from another country or speak a different language, education is an opportunity. But it can be intimidating. The academics are challenging, but what’s tougher for many students and their families is the language barrier.

Students may progress quickly, but many parents, because of the language barrier, feel disconnected from their children’s education. A group of parents in Portland is trying to change that.

Micky Bondo, originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, remembers going to her first parent-teacher conference after she arrived in Portland in 2009.

“I just started asking myself, ‘OK, something was wrong,’” she says.

As she walked through the doors of the elementary school, Bondo says she noticed that she was one of the only immigrant parents who was there to talk with her children’s teachers.

“I looked around my own community, asking questions of other parents, ‘Why didn’t I see you at that kind of conference?’” she says.

“We were wondering why are these people not going back to school?” says Nolasque Isirabahenda, a Portland parent originally from Burundi.

They saw the same problems. Parents of immigrants and refugees, they discovered, felt disconnected from the city’s schools.

“We talked to different parents. They said we don’t know how the system works,” Isirabahanda says. “We don’t understand English. We don’t know a way to see what’s happening.”

Both Bondo and Isirabahenda saw this as a serious problem. Parents couldn’t help their children to succeed in this new culture, they feared, if they could not be connected to the school system. And without that support, Isirabahenda says he saw students from his own community skipping school and dropping out.

“I said, why don’t these kids go to school? If you don’t go to school, what kind of job will you have?” he says. “Once you’re educated, you can create your job. Do something. Kids like to finish elementary school, go to high school, drive a taxi, that’s it. This is not enough.”

For a long time, discussion of the problem was kept inside these communities. But about three years ago, parents like Bondo and Isirabahenda found each other. And with support from USM’s Muskie School of Public Service, they formed a group called Portland Empowered to advocate for these issues and work to fix them with Portland Public School administrators.

At a recent meeting, the group of about a dozen parents and advocates plan out something called a “shared space cafe.” These have become the signature event of the group, held on Friday nights with a simple structure.

Teachers, administrators and parents gather inside a local school and sit in a circle. Often with the help of interpretors, parents voice their concerns and administrators listen and try to respond.

On this day, Portland Empowered is planning a cafe at Casco Bay High School to talk about immigration and safety. Member Safiya Mohamed says she wants to help students and parents feel safe inside and outside of school.

“We know the teachers care a lot,” she says. “Where we care is on the sidewalk, or waiting for the bus, it really is an issue. At midnight. And people, they just misunderstand who you are.”

Education researchers say this kind of face-to-face contact is crucial to connect with families who traditionally have been underrepresented in schools. Yet through these connections, that change has already started to happen.

Bondo says these events helped Portland’s schools see that they needed more personal connections with parents. She and others say instead of using automated robocalls to reach parents, the schools needs to prioritize personal communication.

“You see the face of that person who sacrifices time to teach your child,” she says. “That gives you that connection. You can see the teacher is really concerned. That if something happens, she knows I can be in touch with the parents. Because I know exactly what the parents want for that child.”

After three years of advocacy, these issues — of face-to-face contact and increased input from immigrant families — are finally turning into policy in the district. Last week, the Portland Board of Public Education passed a new parent engagement policy that was drafted in partnership with these parents.

Portland Title I coordinator Angela Atkison Duina says the new policy is broad, but includes much of what these parents want. That includes requiring at least two meetings between parents and teachers per year and creating a new parent committee to hold the district accountable.

“Hopefully if we have this established group, this will be ongoing work and we’ll continue to focus on it,” she says.

Isirabahenda says there’s still lots of work to do. But he says he’s already seeing changes in his own community through these new connections.

After we finish talking in the basement of the Portland Public Library, a boy approaches and tells him that there’s another student from their community inside the library who should be at school. Isirabahenda tracks the student down and asks him why he’s not in school. He and the student agree to meet the next day to discuss the issue.

“This is the problem,” he says. “What can he be in the future? A homeless? He must go to school. To finish school. Look for a job. Otherwise, what can he be?”

Isirabahenda says he rarely had these kinds of conversations three years ago. But slowly, he says, his community is beginning to see the value of connecting with the schools and shaping the future of their district.