Engaging Parents in Education: Lessons From Five Parental Information And Resource Centers
June 2007
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Understanding the Audience

A variety of factors, such as the growing rate of non-English-speaking families in the schools, changing family composition, poverty, and family mobility, require that PIRCs be creative and persistent, especially in their efforts to connect with educationally and economically disadvantaged parents. Per the requirements of PIRC grants, they must find ways to assess the communication needs of their constituents and address them through a variety of strategies. Though PIRCs in general have been focused most intensely on reaching parents, they recognize the need to communicate as well with teachers and other educators, which can be an equally challenging proposition, although for different reasons. For example, some site administrators may assume that they and their staff already know as much as they need to know about NCLB or already have sufficient parent involvement, so they see no reason to allocate limited staff development time to these issues. To help address such barriers, PIRCs like the Indiana Center for Family, School, and Community Partnerships (referred to hereafter as the Indiana Partnerships Center), based in Indianapolis, and the Family Works, based in Gaithersburg, Md., began working directly with district- and state-level education agencies, respectively. The trust developed through such relationships can yield greater access to staff (including but not limited to teachers), both for training purposes and for distributing materials (e.g., NCLB guides) to educators and, through them, to parents

Although, as suggested above, PIRCs have been making inroads in communicating with educators, this section in particular reflects the primary focus of their activities, which has been helping parents understand key issues related to their children’s schooling, chief among them, NCLB.

Address Diverse Language Needs

For the many school districts across the country that are serving growing numbers of non-English- speaking families, successful communication with parents requires translating materials and using interpreters. But as the amount and kind of education-related information that parents need continues to grow, some schools and districts have been unable to keep up. The highlighted PIRCs have been able to help in this area by taking advantage of economies of scale; for example, whereas one school or district might need to hire a translator to prepare materials for just 50 or 500 families, respectively, a PIRC can hire someone to translate the same or similar materials and then expect to distribute them through multiple schools and districts to 5,000 families. The Indiana Partnerships Center now offers all key parent materials and services in both English and Spanish. In recently updating its Web site, this PIRC added a Spanish language interface, which can be accessed by simply clicking an "Español" link. Through this link, the site also offers a page of resources specifically geared to families with limited proficiency in English.

The PIRC program operated by the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA), based in San Antonio, Tex., also provides most materials and services in both English and Spanish. Although IDRA’s initial PIRC grant supported only three full-time staff members, the organization has used others on its staff for PIRC activities as needed. Because the majority of its staffers are fluent in both English and Spanish, staff presenters and facilitators at PIRC-produced meetings, workshops, and other gatherings for parents have been able to use what they call "simultaneous translation." In this communications approach, a speaker or presenter effectively serves as his or her own interpreter, speaking for a couple of minutes in one language and then repeating the same thing in the other language. Staff find this preferable to presenting in one language while a second person interprets, which invariably leaves one segment of the audience feeling like they have to "catch up," is more time-consuming, and can lead to participants losing interest. They also find it preferable to having separate sessions for parents based on their language. The point, they say, is to have all parents begin to feel comfortable working together irrespective of their languages and cultures. One focus group member who had participated in a session utilizing simultaneous translation noted that she had never before been to a parent information gathering where the audience included both fluent English speakers and those with little or no English, where two languages were used so naturally, and where, in this case, Spanish-speakers were made to feel so at home that they were not afraid or too embarrassed to actively participate.

Tips for Understanding the Audience

  • Assess the communications needs (e.g., language, literacy level) of target audiences.

  • Work through established education associations (e.g., local Title I offices, state departments of education, parent-teacher organizations) to build trust with and deliver information to teachers and other educators.

  • Address parents' diverse language needs by offering bilingual or multilingual materials, Web sites, and trainings.

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Last Modified: 06/15/2009