- Associated Press - Friday, December 7, 2018

CARTHAGE, Mo. (AP) - On a recent Monday night at Fairview Elementary, a small group of Hispanic parents sit around a table joined by teachers from Carthage’s dual language and English Language Learners programs.

The teachers ask the parents a series of questions, including if they’re interested in English classes and what life is like at home with their students. It’s the first of many meetings to come in an effort to increase engagement with immigrant families, one component of a larger grant project that seeks to bolster English Language Learners programs in four Missouri school districts, including Carthage.

The $2.6 million five-year grant, dubbed Strengthening Equity and Effectiveness for Teachers of English Learners, will provide ELL training to teachers in the Carthage, Kansas City Public, Bayless and Columbia public school districts, the Joplin Globe reported.

The program includes an annual summer institute and covers the cost of tuition for 50 teachers to earn certification in teaching English to speakers of other languages, commonly referred to as ESOL teachers. Carthage will also receive $2,000 annually to implement strategies for immigrant family engagement.

Jana Sawyer, Carthage’s ELL coordinator, said family engagement means more than just having parents at school events. And so came the recent meeting with families, a focus group of sorts that began the engagement process.

“(Engagement) is the idea of developing a meaningful partnership with parents and a sense of shared responsibility in the development of the child,” Sawyer said. “We are working on building small teams of parents right now so that teachers and parents can have more intimate conversations and really learn from each other on how to move forward.”

The SEE-TEL program was developed by Kim Song at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Lisa Dorner at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Song previously did similar work in the St. Louis area and partnered with Dorner to expand into districts across the state for SEE-TEL.

The four districts are both rural and urban, and have different immigrant demographics. Carthage’s immigrant population is mostly Hispanic, while Bayless, a suburban St. Louis district, has a high Bosnian refugee population. Columbia and Kansas City both have a diverse and growing population of immigrants.

“One of the goals was to connect these different places that wouldn’t necessarily reach out to each other all the time,” Dorner said. “All of these districts also have a focus on building on the knowledge, skills and language that their families bring to the district.”

The grant was awarded to Dorner and Song in the fall of 2017, and the first summer institute was held in July of this year. The institute gives teachers the ability to collaborate and share strategies for ELL teaching.

At Carthage, five teachers will take the coursework to get their ESOL certification. Two of those are Gretel Schmidt, a first-grade Spanish teacher, and Emeli Jimenez, a kindergarten Spanish teacher at Fairview Elementary. Both are part of Carthage’s Dual Language Academy, a two-way immersion program where class is taught in both Spanish and English.

Schmidt and Jimenez were at the first engagement meeting, where teachers gauged what parents wanted and needed from the program. The project is still in the early stages, but parents provided good feedback that will help guide teachers in developing their engagement plans.

“We wanted to create conversation, an open space for the parents to share,” Schmidt said. “They were surprised that we wanted to know their opinions … I think because we’ve never made a direct connection and line of communication with Hispanic parents.”

Parents indicated they were interested in English classes, which Jimenez said could help families in exploring more activities, such as attending plays or taking music lessons.

“We’re trying to find ways for our parents to be able to give their kids more enrichment at home,” Jimenez said. “I hope that by the time we’re done, we will have parents who will feel pride, feel like they belong here and feel like their kids look up to them because of the things they’ve been able to accomplish with the program.”

Through the engagement activities, teachers hope to empower the Hispanic families to share their culture and value their native languages. Although the district and Carthage as a town has a high Hispanic population, Schmidt said there aren’t many Hispanic parents in leadership roles, such as on the school board or as classroom moms.

“I would like to equip Hispanic parents to just be leaders in the community,” Schmidt said. “We want to make them comfortable and confident about sharing their culture, and we want to give them the tools they need to take on leadership roles or plan and run events.”

At the summer institute in July, Jimenez was most affected by a panel of parents who spoke about their experiences with the school system. A Korean woman told the teachers about her daughter, who was reluctant to express her culture.

It reminded Jimenez of her time as a high school Spanish teacher, when she would often get students who already knew Spanish but were ashamed of speaking it. She said some kids think their language is embarrassing because they may associate it with a lower social status, and she hopes this project will be able to change that.

“Hearing the parent panel motivated me more to be part of this program, because it is my job to set the foundation to make sure that Spanish has a status that is higher than what it’s being given,” Jimenez said. “I want to make sure that kids see me as a professional, and I want them to know and realize that Spanish is important and that people that speak it are also important and have value.”

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Information from: The Joplin (Mo.) Globe, http://www.joplinglobe.com


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