Prioritizing Family Engagement to Support DLLs

Family engagement is such an important support for students’ success (see here and here) that it’s often thought of as simple common sense. But when speaking broadly about family engagement, we often forget that different subgroups of students have different needs.

Dual language learners (DLLs) are no exception. Consider this: around 30 percent of all young children in the U.S. come from linguistically diverse homes and 17 percent of children of immigrants have at least one limited English proficient (LEP) parent. Furthermore, DLLs are more likely than non-DLLs to be of low socioeconomic status. Reaching DLLs’ families requires that schools meaningfully grapple with these factors. For instance, engagement with many DLLs’ families will require schools to develop capacity for outreach in their home languages.

Despite these challenges, DLLs bring strong social capital to school. Children of immigrants are more likely to live in two-parent households than are non-immigrant children (and children who speak a non-English language at home are also more likely than native English speakers to have two parents at home). Additionally, research shows that Latino children arrive at preschool with high levels of socio-emotional competency.

So how can schools get engagement with DLLs’ families right — especially in the early years? In a recent report from Columbia University’s National Center for Children in Poverty, Supporting Family Engagement in Linguistically Diverse Families to Promote Young Children’s Learning, researchers Sandra Barrueco, Sheila Smith, and Samuel A. Stephens present research on family engagement practices that have proven effective with linguistically diverse families. They found that early learning centers should:

  1. encourage home-based learning through demonstration sessions — either at home, during individual parent-teacher meetings, or through group parenting sessions — where parents can practice what they learn and receive feedback;
  2. give parents materials — such as books, informational pamphlets, and math kits —  to carry out home-based learning activities and include guidance in parents’ native language on how to use them;
  3. emphasize the value of home-based interactions in the children’s home language; and  
  4. create welcoming school environments so that families from similar cultures create social networks or support groups — schools can do this by hosting family events and school-based parent leadership programs where parents share best parenting practices with each other.
Some early education centers here in Washington, D.C. have been extremely successful in designing and implementing programs to engage the parents of DLLs. Both Briya Public Charter School and AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter School serve primarily low-income families and substantial numbers of DLLs. At Briya, 93 percent of the students are DLLs and all are low-income. At AppleTree’s Columbia Heights campus, 24 percent are DLLs and 99 percent of all students are low-income.

Both schools provide demonstration sessions for parents so they can support their children’s learning at home. For example, Briya —  which serves children 0 to 5 and adults — integrates parenting classes and Parent and Child Together Time (PACT). The parenting classes develop parents’ literacy and language skills and also teach them techniques to support their children’s development. Later PACT sessions let them practice what they’ve learned.

AppleTree’s efforts look somewhat different, but serve the same purpose. It runs a family literacy program that includes periodic Family Nights. These combine structured and engaging parent-child activities with literacy activities, and teach parents how to replicate those interactions at home. For example, during AppleTree’s week-long Nutrition Nights series, nutritionists share healthy eating tips and habits and encourage healthy cooking at home. They also engage immigrant parents by incorporating activities with food from their countries of origin. Importantly, the school partners with D.C.’s OSSE, the Junior League of Washington, and Revolution Foods, meaning that the initiative comes at no cost to the school.

Both schools also provide parents with materials to encourage home-based learning. Briya sends home a weekly family newsletter that is available in English and Spanish. It includes highlights of PACT activities, vocabulary words with corresponding visuals, and questions intended to instigate meaningful dialogue. AppleTree has a lending library, which has books in all the home languages represented by the students. Teachers pair books with scaffolded activities to encourage and facilitate parent-child reading time. This comes at a small cost to the school, which buys most of its books from a local used book store that sells them for as little as two dollars each!

Additionally, Briya’s program includes classes that teach parents how to use technology, complete health and work forms, and learn English. How does it maintain such high levels of parent involvement? At Briya, parent engagement is not an option — it’s a requirement. Parents sign an agreement that commits them to dedicating 12 hours each week to engagement activities including PACT time, story time, library visits, parent-teacher conferences, home visits, as well as parenting, computer, and English classes.

Both schools have been recognized for their models. AppleTree was awarded an Investing in Innovation (i3) grant in 2010 by the Department of Education, which it used to further develop and implement its Every Child Ready curriculum. Additionally, AppleTree students know 25 percent more letters upon entering Kindergarten, demonstrate better oral reading fluency in first grade, and perform better on oral reading in second grade than other peers. Briya has also seen great success: student language/literacy, mathematics, and social-emotional learning (SEL) scores are nearly perfect, and SEL scores reach 100 percent! Although it’s difficult to attribute these schools’ success solely to their family engagement models, it’s safe to say that these models are at least modest contributors.

So what can other early care centers serving DLLs learn from Briya’s and AppleTree’s models? First, both schools blend funding from federal, local, and private sources. As charter schools in D.C., they benefit from the District’s heavy investment in free universal pre-K and significant federal Head Start funds. Next, AppleTree Schools have the unique advantage of being supported by the AppleTree Institute, which conducts rigorous research to develop innovative solutions to close the achievement gap.

While not all schools have these advantages, they can learn from these schools’ partnerships with community-based organizations. For example, both partner with the Flamboyan Foundation to conduct home visits, and Briya partners with Mary’s Center — a community health center that serves underserved populations — to provide health and social services for their families.

Although early care centers face resource and language challenges (among others) when implementing family engagement programs targeted to DLLs, Briya and AppleTree prove that these obstacles are not insurmountable. To really prepare our young DLLs for future success, other early education centers should learn from places like Briya and AppleTree that have intentionally prioritized family engagement and incorporated it as an integral component of their programs.

This post is part of New America’s Dual Language Learner National Work Group. Click here for more information on this team’s work. To subscribe to the biweekly newsletter, click here, enter your contact information, and select “Education Policy.”"


Isabella Sanchez is a former intern for the Education Policy program at New America with the Dual Language Learner National Work Group.