Research has demonstrated that meaningful family engagement leads to better student performance, and yet our local schools still struggle to engage families from racially, ethnically and culturally diverse communities, particularly when it comes to parents who have limited English proficiency or have children in special education programs.
As a result, many special-needs students from these diverse backgrounds end up getting left behind as their peers advance.
At many school districts in King County, more than 50 percent of students speak a language other than English at home. Serving and communicating with parents who have limited English proficiency should not be a new thing for schools. And yet, many parents are left wondering why it is so difficult for schools to engage diverse families of children with special needs. Is it because the schools lack knowledge of the best family engagement practices? Or because schools do not value special-needs students from other cultures? Or are schools simply unwilling to make needed changes to correct their own cultural bias and the institutional racism against this target population?
The answers are multi-faceted and not easy to answer. The challenges from schools to engage these diverse families are no less than what these families encounter when trying to interact with schools.
Across the system, schools generally lack the language and cultural capacity to engage these families meaningfully. School-hired interpreters are often not trained properly, are not familiar with special education, or speak different dialects than the family. Some families are also told to bring their own interpreters or have their children to interpret for them. In addition to verbal communication challenges, written information has been primarily printed in English or posted on school websites only. All of these obstacles can prevent meaningful communication between families and schools.
Without proper language support, it has become impossible for parents of students with an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, to know what’s going on in their child’s school. For these families, special education is like a maze. Without cultural understanding of what it is, they often are asked to sign the IEP documents without understanding what it is written and what education services their children are receiving.
At Open Doors for Multicultural Families, we’ve learned that these language and cultural challenges can be overcome through systemic, meaningful collaboration with parents, education leaders, and organizations from diverse communities. By working with community organizations and leaders that are trusted by parents, schools can communicate with these families more easily and learn new strategies for better serving a diverse population. Parents, in turn, are given the support they need to navigate the special-education system.
Bridging education gaps for diverse special-need students relies on everyone working together. Meaningful family engagement requires strong leadership and sustained investment in a true partnership with parents and involved community leaders. After all, we all know that “it takes a village to raise a child.” The question for schools is, “who is the village?”
Ginger Kwan is executive director of Open Doors for Multicultural Families, a Kent-based nonprofit serving more than 600 children with developmental disabilities and their families.