Imagine you are going to your child’s school for the first time, waiting to meet their teacher and wanting to start the school year with all the right information to make sure your child is doing their best. When you enter the building, the signs are in a language you don’t understand well, you are greeted in a language that you are just learning and your child’s teacher can’t answer your specific questions.

This is an experience that teachers and staff at Stillwater Area Public Schools are trying to avoid for the families where English is a second language. According to district staff, there are 15 different languages that are spoken in the homes of students that attend Stillwater Area schools.

For nearly five years, teachers and staff at Lake Elmo Elementary have been working with the Hispanic families that attend the elementary school to create lasting partnerships.

In the spring of 2014, staff at the school worked with the non-profit Parent Institute for Quality Education to provide professional development to teachers to become more culturally inclusive in educating parents to foster a positive educational environment for students both at home and at school. What started as an 8-week program has continued into an on-going evening gathering program for parents four to five times a year to meet with Lake Elmo Elementary and Oak-Land Middle School staff to talk about topics related to education, with topics ranging from homework skills to post-secondary options.

On Dec. 3, the parent group was joined by staff at a meal and program discussing reading at home, what resources are available and how to support student literacy. While many of the teachers that attended the event are fluent in Spanish, translators were present to facilitate discussion.

Brandon Auge, a English Language teacher at Lake Elmo Elementary, said opportunities for staff to meet with parents are very important.

“It provides an opportunity for us to learn how we can be more responsive to the families that we’re serving,” Auge said. “If we learn more about the lived experience of our families, the better we can all be. It’s about is getting to know and understand the successes and the challenges that all of our families are having, and providing a really intentional opportunity to learn about that, so we can respond to it.”

For parents that went to an American school, they can usually draw on past memories of what school looks like. For families that have come from a different country, the American school system may be an unknown.

“Because they have a different lived experience than a lot of the families that Stillwater historically served, they maybe grew up grew up with different systems than we use here,” Auge said. “There is some talking to parents about the differences and how we navigate those and how we reconcile those.”

These conversations can also have a big impact on the way Stillwater Area Public Schools reach the goals outlined in state requirements for equity and integration. According to the Minnesota Department of Education, only 44.7% of Stillwater’s Hispanic students are proficient in reading - slightly better than the state average of 39.2%.

“If we understand and know the students and the families that we are serving, we have a responsibility as teachers, administrators and the school board to actively seek opportunities to learn about them,” Auge said. “We can change the way that we teach, we can change the way that we approach education. Education is dynamic, education is fluid, and if we are not changing, we’re not serving our kids and families.”

As the staff at Lake Elmo has found success with reaching out to parents in its largest minority group - Hispanic families - Auge said that in a perfect world the staff in Stillwater Public Schools would like to offer similar parent groups to the district’s other ethnic groups - including Hmong and Somali families.

“Our Hispanic community is one of our larger ethnic minorities in Stillwater and so It makes sense that we would work with them and connect with them in this really intentional way,” Auge said. “But we also have a large Somali population — we have about 15 languages in the district. So if money and resources were unlimited, we would be able to replicate this for lots of our different the communities that we serve.”

Contact Alicia Lebens at alicia.lebens@ecm-inc.com

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