How Do You Engage Parents Who Don’t Speak English?

Teacher Kerri Gardner uses a communication app with a translation feature to connect her kindergarten class with parents and the wider community.

By Chaks Appalabattula

Parent communication is a challenge in every school. According to a Gallup poll, only 1 in 5 parents are truly engaged with their children’s school. Districts with high immigration and low income rates have the added problem that many parents don’t fully understand English. Often, these same families have incomes that make regular access to a computer impossible. Most of these families do have access to a smartphone, though. Here’s an example of how one district took advantage of that fact to engage hard-to-reach parents.

Holyoke School District is a Title 1 district in Colorado that serves more than 400 families. The district communicates with these families through teacher notes and calls, newsletters, emails, newspaper articles, and more. Holyoke also offers evening workshops and meetings throughout the year on topics including technology, literacy, and scholarship applications. There are several committees that parents are encouraged to join, including an Accountability Committee, Parents in Education (PIE), and a Wellness Committee. The district also helps families with its Migrant Program and Homeless Program. Despite all of these existing programs, engaging immigrant parents is always a challenge, since they do not feel connected to the school community.

Turning Disconnected Parents into Academic Allies

Kerri Gardner is a kindergarten teacher at Holyoke Elementary School. Like many teachers in her district, she is always looking for a way to engage parents in her classes. “I wanted parents to know what we did throughout the day so they could talk to their child about it,” she said. In her search for a way to get past the language barrier that exists with many of her parents, about a year ago she found an app called Bloomz that promised to simplify communication with parents, and decided to give it a try.

Bloomz is a free mobile and web app that works on traditional phones (via text message), on computers, or even smartphones (via a mobile app). Bloomz offers translation to more than 84 languages. When she first started using the app, Gardner “was concerned about participation level from parents because our population is high poverty and we have high populations of a second language being spoken at home. Despite this, most of my parents signed up.”

With the Bloomz translation feature, Gardner posts messages or updates in English and parents receive them automatically translated into their preferred language. Gardner also bridges the language barrier by communicating with images. Last year, she remembered, “I took a lot of pictures to share with parents what fun learning activities we were doing. Pictures worked really well in Bloomz because of the language issues with parents, and for parents to share the pictures with their child in order to increase discussion.”

Staying in touch with parents on a daily basis had an impact on the dynamics of her classroom, too. “Bloomz promotes better behavior,” she said, “letting parents know how a student’s behavior is at school so parents can reinforce good behaviors at home or discuss poor behavior.” (Bloomz has recently announced new features to help track students’ behavior and share student portfolios, which will be available in time for the new school year.)

The daily communication allowed Gardner to work with parents to their students’ academic benefit, she said. Inspired by a message from her, “A parent talks to their child about what he learned that day and sees that he could use a little more practice and works with him at home on the skill.”

Gardner also found her own innovative ways to use the app in the classroom. “We took the photos and used them in class to meet a social studies standard, putting the pictures from the year in order on a timeline,” she shared. “I’ve basically photo-documented my kindergartners’ entire year because of the Bloomz app.”

Connecting with the Community at Large

In order to have a lasting impact, though, technology has to go beyond the classroom setting to help schools build relationships with their parent communities. As Gardner put it, “Bloomz helps develop positive relationships between school, home, and even the public by letting parents see the good things we’re doing at school.”

Her school administrator has taken notice, and is now asking several other teachers to start using the app as well. “It gives him a window into my classroom so that he can see what learning activities I’m using to teach the standards,” she said.

Gardner has big plans for Bloomz beyond the classroom: “To promote positive relationships with the community, next year I’d like to invite our local newspaper to view our Bloomz feed so that if they see a learning activity that they like, they can print it in the newspaper—with parent permission if photos are involved.”

Technology doesn’t only benefit people in high-income communities. Armed with a phone, a powerful imagination, and a communication app that seamlessly translates for her diverse community, Gardner has helped catapult Holyoke into a new century of community-building and parental engagement.

Chaks Appalabattula is the CEO of Bloomz, a new app that connects teachers with parents, creating an engaged parent community in classrooms and schools.

Want to follow Bloomz on Twitter? Follow them @BloomzApp

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