Early education goes a long way toward preparing all students for lifelong academic achievement, but it’s perhaps even more important to children who are learning the English language. In addition to the language barrier, these students face other hurdles to accessing high-quality pre-K instruction, such as transportation and knowledge of how to access the educational system. I’m an English language learner myself, and after a decade of working on behalf of a non-profit organization to provide access to families like mine, I’ve found that the best tools in overcoming those barriers are persistence and genuine community engagement.
We offer an online early literacy, numeracy and science instruction program at no cost to families on a first-come-first-served basis, but we actively recruit families from at-risk populations — including those living in rural areas where access to traditional pre-K is scarce, those with income below 185% of the poverty level and those who are ELLs. Many times, English language learners — Hispanic ELLs in particular — fall into all three categories. To ensure families are able to participate in a tech-based program, we provide computers and Internet to families without them. We also assign each family a coach who communicates with them in their home language.
Bridging languages and cultures
The first challenge in providing access to ELLs is, of course, the language barrier. Fortunately, this issue may also be the easiest to overcome. In Utah, where our organization is based, there is a large refugee population. To connect with those families, we’ve partnered with interpretation services to support families in 21 different languages to date.
Beyond the language barrier, however, there is also often a cultural barrier. With refugees, this may run even deeper than the typical struggles families might encounter as they try to make a new life in the U.S. It’s not uncommon for refugees to live in camps for years and, for that reason, they may not be familiar with the internet or even personal computers. These families often need support beyond the over-the-phone coaching and assistance we provide every family, so our refugee supervisor Claudia Jimenez visits participating refugee families in their own homes to help solve obstacles keeping their children from accessing our program.
Overcoming distrust through community
Another problem we face with ELL families is distrust. When these families hear that we have a fully funded program that will prepare their children for school and provides a free laptop, internet access, and a coach to help ensure success, they often think it’s too good to be true and there must be a catch.
Unfortunately, there is also another source of distrust, particularly among the Hispanic families we serve. Some of these families fear that by accepting federal or state aid or any kind, they could jeopardize their immigration status. Our program is not a form of federal aid and using our program does not affect immigration status, but that concern is a very real barrier for many families.
As a supporter of our program, Utah State Senator Luz Escamilla recently helped calm those fears when she told a reporter, “They may be holding back from registering their kids because they believe that information will be shared with the federal government. Because this is through the state, that information is protected. We’re not an immigration enforcement agency. … We’re trying to make sure families are aware they don’t have to worry about sharing information. Right now, there’s a lot of trust problems.”
It’s certainly advantageous to have a state senator in our corner, but the relationships we have formed with community leaders and organizations are also essential in bringing families on board. We partner with organizations such as Head Start, PTAs and school districts themselves. We stay as closely in touch with these school districts — elementary schools in particular — as possible. We email and send letters to every public and private school in the areas we serve and follow up with phone calls to make ourselves available to principals and other administrators.
We attend any parent-teacher conference or other events where we’re welcome to meet with individual families, too. Being in a trusted space helps generate interest in the program, but it also helps overcome some of those common hesitancies many families of at-risk students feel. Once they’ve seen it on TV, and they’ve seen a flyer at the library, and now they’re seeing us at a book fair, then they become much more likely to take action for their kids.
Providing high-quality early learning access to ELLs definitely has unique challenges, but it also often comes with additional benefits. When I was learning English as a child, I have memories of running routine errands with my father, such as depositing a check at the bank. He would do his best with the transaction before I had to step in and help him communicate. If these children are given a chance like I was, they often become the first English speakers in their families and provide a crucial bridge to the wider community around them.
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