South King County schools see big wins getting immigrant parents involved

Harold Jones, a paralegal specialist and diversity officer at Navy Medicine Support Command, reads to first-grade students as part of a community volunteer program. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Bruce Cummins)

Mai Tran’s first experience volunteering at her daughter’s kindergarten was thrilling — even if she was only sharpening pencils.

Back home in Vietnam, as in many countries, the classroom is purely under the teacher’s jurisdiction. Parents aren’t welcome.

So when she saw other parents volunteering in the classroom of her daughter’s kindergarten room, she was shocked at first. Then she wanted to know how to sign up. On her first day, the teacher smiled and presented her with a box of 300 pencils to sharpen. Excited to contribute, she meticulously began to sharpen each pencil with a hand held blade before another volunteer finally pointed her toward an automatic sharpener in the workroom.

As someone who wasn’t socialized into American culture, such things as volunteering — and even using an automatic sharpener — were barriers to participation in her child’s schooling that other parents just wouldn’t face.

“I was so happy. I started learning how to get involved… day by day,” Tran recalls. “But at that time all by myself. It’s really hard.”

Tran learned the ins and outs of the American public school system, but she did so on her own. That’s why more than ten years later, even though her own daughter was already in college, Tran was delighted to learn about a new program offered by the Kent School District called PASA: The Parent Academy for Student Achievement.

Though the program is meant for all parents, many that attend are immigrants. Tran took the nine week course and is now a parent facilitator, helping other parents navigate the system, and serving as a conduit between the school and other Vietnamese parents who aren’t comfortable with English.

“PASA as a class is my dream come true,” Tran said. “I wish I had that class ten years ago.”

Mai Tran (rear) working with Vietnamese families to select questions to be asked during a dialogue with on of the Kent School District's principals. (Photo courtesy of Millicent Borishade)
Mai Tran (rear) working with Vietnamese families to select questions to be asked during a dialogue with on of the Kent School District’s principals. (Photo courtesy of Millicent Borishade)

The program’s goal is to increase family engagement in Kent schools to bolster student achievement. It offers a course where parents are guided through everything they need to know about the school system — from how to check their children’s grades, to how to prep for a student teacher conference and how to navigate the college admission process. The courses are taught in a culturally sensitive way — interpreters are provided, and parents who have already gone through the program facilitate classes for new parents, often providing language and cultural assistance for those in their own communities.

The program doesn’t just impact parents. The whole idea is that the effects trickle down to students as well.

Millicent Borishade, the Kent School District’s assistant director of family and community engagement cited one case where a student’s GPA went up from a .6 to a 2.9 in a matter of nine weeks following his parents’ completion of the program. Borishade attributed the improvement to the most basic information, like the parents understanding the importance of class attendance and knowing how to read a report card.

PASA was profiled as one of three South King County case studies in a UW education report that came out earlier this summer. The report specifically examines the implications of “non-dominant” parent involvement in schools for equity in education.

The term “non-dominant” refers to parents and communities that are typically at the margins of the education system and thus often left out of school board and curriculum decisions. Most of these parents come from immigrant, minority and low-income communities. In diverse areas like South King County, a large proportion of parents fall into the non-dominant category.

The report is part of a larger initiative called The Road Map Project, a collective effort between various schools and organizations in South King County, whose collaboration aims at doubling the number of South King County students eligible for college admission by 2020. South King County is one of the most diverse areas in the state; over 2/3 of their students are people of color, and 167 different languages are spoken in the area.

Mai Tran teaching a PASA class to parents at Meridian Middle School. (Photo Courtesy Millicent Borishade)
Mai Tran teaching a PASA class to parents at Meridian Middle School. (Photo Courtesy Millicent Borishade)

In the past, schools have generally expected parents and families to conform to the institution, explains Ann Ishimaru, Assistant Professor at the UW college of Education and a primary investigator for the Road Map Project. Ishimaru says it’s time for that to change, especially because this September will mark the first school year where the majority of American public school students will be minorities.

“Engaging means that we aren’t doing this to you, we are co-creating this journey for your child,” Borishade says. “How can the school — the district — co-create that experience for you and not point fingers and say this is what’s best for your child? 

While PASA and similar initiatives help families navigate the school system in a culturally sensitive way, they are also slowly and subtly shifting the very idea of what education means. Such programs break the barriers between school, home and community by involving parents in decision making and paving a two-way street where students aren’t just learning from school, but the school is also learning from families and community networks.

“I as an educator have much to learn, especially from non-dominant parents, about your child’s learning needs, about your cultural background,” Ishimaru explains, “I have as much to learn there as you do from me.”

She is careful to note this circular relationship — from home, to school, to community — isn’t a full-fledged reality yet. Still, the very presence of initiatives like PASA and the Road Map project are signs of progress. Giving non-dominant parents more control and connection with their children’s education is a promising first step.