While the number of students growing up in families who don’t speak English is increasing in the suburbs, the schools aren’t always as equipped as their urban counterparts to meet the demands of a more diverse student body.
A new Center for American Progress report calls on schools to provide English language instruction not only to the children they serve, but to the parents of those students as well.
“There are a lot of communities that are getting influxes of immigrants who have never had immigrant populations in the past,” report author Tracey Ross told Fusion. “Those communities haven’t really thought through how to educate parents and children with limited English proficiency.”
While states like California and Texas have infrastructures in place and there are other immigrants there to offer emotional support, job opportunities are driving immigrants to towns and cities without such existing structures.
“One of the most significant ways that communities can respond to potential changes in the immigration system, as well as ongoing shifts in the nation’s demographics, is by ensuring greater access to English language instruction,” Ross writes in the report.
She points to places like Oakland and Chula Vista, California, that take a “two-generation approach,” meaning the schools teach English to both students and parents.
In Oakland, where half the kids speak a language other than English at home and more than 70 percent qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch, the district works with local community groups to offer literacy classes to entire families, and to provide programs before and after school. The district also works with families to secure housing and healthcare, the idea being that a kid is going to have a hard time completing his or her homework if that child doesn’t have a home from which to work.
“You need to look longitudinally,” Sue Pon, director of adult education for Oakland, told Fusion. “We are empowering a family and a community, not just a child.”
The Chula Vista district, which sits near the Mexican border and has high rates of unemployment and poverty, works with a local organization called South Bay Community Services, to help families learn English and to offer mentorship. After finding that few kids were enrolled in preschool, the group worked with several other organizations and companies to provide a free full-day preschool, where non-English speaking kids can begin to learn English.
Since the district is partnering with a trusted community group instead of operating alone, families who are undocumented and may be wary of authorities are willing to come forward and take advantage of services.
A local approach works best, Ross said, “because it’s important to have buy-in from the people who live there.”
To anyone who suggests it’s not a school’s problem to teach a parent English, Ross would say, “It does become their problem.”
It’s much more cost effective to teach parents English and equip them with the resources to help their children succeed than to teach kids English in a vacuum, without creating the support structure that will help them avoid needing various social services in the future, she said.
“If we’re not helping these children and their families now,” she added, “we’ll have to help them later at an even deeper level.”
Between 2000 and 2013, the Latino population in the United States grew by 43 percent, according to the report. The non-Hispanic white population grew by just five percent during that time. Three-quarters of Latinos speak a language other than English at home. Increasingly, the labor force and economy will depend on immigrants and their children.
“English proficiency among parents is critical when it comes to accessing the knowledge and resources necessary to help children navigate classrooms, health facilities, and even the juvenile justice system,” notes the report.
Right now, according to Ross, the two-generation approach is not the norm. But she thinks more schools are moving that direction, as well as offering so-called “wraparound” services such as workforce training to accompany language classes.
“We’re having more sophisticated conversations about what it takes to raise children and for parents to balance work and family responsibilities.” Ross said. “So I think, especially amongst educators, that people are recognizing that, yeah, parents, especially low-income parents, have a really hard time balancing everything.”
Ultimately, a kid doesn’t go to school in a bubble. Their home life and family life influence their ability to obtain an education. And, argues Ross, teaching families English will boost the economy, because wages go up when a person speaks fluently.
Yet there are roadblocks. Republicans have supported legislation that would bundle funding for things like English language classes into block grants for states, leading organizations like the Center for American Progress to voice concerns that there would be little accountability for specific targets, such as English fluency. Education funding for adult English language programs has also been cut.
While the report does support increasing funding, it also argues that by working with community organizations and, as Ross said, “aligning resources,” schools could expand their services cost effectively.
“The bottom line,” Ross said, “is this is good for families and communities and we need to put funding toward it.”