Leaping over language barriers at the Kenny School

“We’ve been talking a lot about how our parent council is great, but not reflective of our school population,” Danielle Morrissey says. She’s the City Connects Coordinator at the Thomas J. Kenny elementary school in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood.

“We were trying to strategize around how to bring in other families that aren’t involved in parent council — and about what the barriers might be, and language came up a lot.”

Language diversity is part of the fabric at the Kenny, where 35 percent of the school’s population speaks a language other than English. So Emily Bryan, the school’s principal, decided to reach out to more families by holding coffee hours in different languages. Morrissey helped organize and facilitate them.

At City Connects, engaging families is a vital part of our work. Family is one of the four domains that coordinators look at during whole class reviews because engaged parents can help their children thrive in school.

The Kenny school’s three coffee hours were held in January and early February: one in Spanish, one in Vietnamese, and one in Haitian Creole. Parents were asked about how the school year was going and about what additional opportunities they would like the school to offer.

Among the topics that they raised were attendance, homework, summer opportunities, and managing difficult behavior.

“I really appreciated how vocal the families were about managing challenging behaviors and how they don’t feel supported,” Morrissey said.

“The approach that Danielle, City Connects, and the Kenny school are taking is very exciting, because it is beautifully aligned with current research on family engagement in children’s learning and best practice for family-school partnerships,” says Eric Dearing, a professor at the Boston College Lynch School of Education who researches family involvement, first-generation immigrant children, and English Language Learners.

Engaging families is inclusive. “We know that children achieve at higher levels when their parents are engaged and partnering with schools. But, we also know that families face many obstacles to being engaged, and this is especially true for families that do not speak English. Overcoming these obstacles takes initiative on the part of schools to reach out to parents, and it takes truly valuing families as partners,” adds Dearing.

Now, Morrissey is planning more programs for linguistically diverse parents.

“In September,” she says, “we’ll have introductory back to school parent coffee hours reviewing the important pieces: what the attendance policy is, what certain notifications mean, what support you have if you need them.”

Morrissey also wants to hold workshops in languages other than English that cover discipline and challenging behavior – as requested by family members at the coffee mornings. And she plans to bring Parent University, an engagement program run by Boston Public Schools, into the Kenny to support parents in helping their children with homework. Parents or guardians could also be trained to become facilitators who lead these workshops for other parents.

Morrissey’s efforts expand on City Connects’ philosophy. At the heart of our work is getting to know children and families so we can provide the right services at the right time. In schools like the Kenny, that means making connections in the right language.

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