The Community Is the Key to Engaging Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Families

by Kathleen Trail
Published in SEDL Letter Volume XII, Number 1, May 2000, Putting the Public back into Public Schools

Picture of Ann Brown and Ron Harder
Getting culturally and linguistically diverse families involved in education issues can ensure that all of a community's perspectives on education are included in the decision-making process.

This philosophy has been an important part of SEDL’s Community Dialogue in Education Reform project. Suzanne Ashby and Cris Garza, program associates in SEDL’s Language and Diversity Program (LDP), first began with a goal to research and select one public engagement strategy that might be effective in including culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) families, who are so often left out of discussions about school reform, then adapt that model and test it. While conducting their research, Ashby and Garza came across unexpected opportunities and challenges that mean revising the scope of their work. In spite of many "bends in the road," the project has made great progress in expanding awareness and understanding of how to reach into a community and include a broader audience in making decisions about school reform. In fact, the unexpected turns may have led the project down a path that will have an even more far-reaching impact than originally intended.

The issues facing teachers, administrators, and parents regarding school reform are complex. Dealing with these issues requires that educators establish lines of communication with others in the school community, but finding an effective and inclusive forum for community dialogue can be difficult. "We believe that the dialogue process can be an effective tool when people want to talk about school reform," says Garza. As Ashby and Garza worked to understand more about the concept of public engagement and looked at a variety of possible strategies and methods, they reached their first turn in the road. They decided to change their initial focus of selecting and adapting a public engagement method and chose to collaborate with another SEDL program.

A bend in the road is not the end of the road—unless you fail to make the turn. —anonymous">

Moving their project into a second phase, Ashby and Garza took the opportunity to work with an ongoing project conducted by the policy staff in SEDL’s Office of Institutional Communications and Policy Services (OICPS). Calling the Roll: Study Circles for Better Schools focused specifically on the use of study circles as a community dialogue tool for engaging state education policymakers with the public. An early phase of the project took place in the fall of 1998. It examined how fifteen communities in Arkansas and Oklahoma conducted study circles, which are small-group dialogues, on education. Across the two states, state and local policymakers, organizers, educators, community members, and students participated in the study circles. Ashby and Garza decided to focus on the study circles method of dialogue to see if it could be an effective means of incorporating diverse viewpoints.

In October and November of 1998, Ashby and Garza made trips to several sites in Oklahoma and Arkansas that were conducting community study circles about education. They tried to choose sites where some linguistic and cultural diversity was likely so that they could observe how culturally diverse attendees and other participants worked together. Their observations of the study circles focused on both verbal and nonverbal interactions between participants, such as pre- and post-meeting conversations, head nodding, and eye contact. They collected information about the cultural implications of these interactions and the linguistic adaptations needed for the meetings. This time, the road took a sharp curve–there was simply not enough diversity in the individual study circles to allow the researchers to make significant observations about the interactions of CLD participants.

To gain a deeper understanding of the study circle process, Ashby and Garza interviewed facilitators, local organizers, and study circle participants. Not only had Ashby and Garza noted the lack of CLD participants at the meetings, the participants themselves also recognized that the groups lacked diversity. One participant commented, "I don’t think there were enough parents there to represent the [minority] parents’ opinion about things. Sometimes people are afraid to come out." Another parent, after a discussion of topics relevant to minority students, said that there were "no opposing viewpoints in the group. We need to hear from a minority. We would have benefited from other viewpoints. We were all middle class."

Picture of Cris Garza and Suzanne Ashby

SEDL program associates Cris Garza and Suzanne Ashby

Ashby and Garza decided to revamp their focus and move the project into a third phase. If their target population wasn’t attending these meetings, maybe the real question should be, "What do we have to do to get them there?" The best answer seemed to lie within the communities themselves. Returning to North Little Rock, Oklahoma City, and Tulsa in August and September of 1999, they began trying to answer this question by talking to the people they had met at the study circle meetings, including the organizers of the project, the facilitators of the workshops, and steering committee members. They contacted anyone who might have some insight into how to reach the CLD communities: school counselors, principals, and school administrators active in their districts; social service agencies; and various cultural and political organizations, such as the NAACP. Through their conversations, they were directed to community leaders of minority groups, local activists, and other grassroots organizers. These leaders and activists recommended that they delve even deeper into a community. Ashby and Garza found themselves calling or going to visit community religious leaders, local business men and women, grandparents, and many others that they might not have initially considered contacting. Each of these people had a different connection to CLD populations and a different understanding of how to reach those targeted by the project. In spite of their unique perspectives, these people also had something in common–they represented a personal link, either direct or indirect, to culturally and linguistically diverse groups and individuals.

As they spoke with more and more people, Ashby and Garza found many of the recruitment concepts that they knew in theory echoed in the interviews. To go beyond traditional recruitment strategies and effectively reach a broader audience, a recruiter must be aware of differences inherent in different cultures, languages, and even socioeconomic circles. Flyers or notices announcing meetings must be distributed in different languages and may need to be phrased or designed differently, depending on the culture. In some cultures where women do not wear slacks, people are wary of interacting with women who do. Assumptions about the availability of convenient transportation to a meeting can vary with class. Another example of a cultural issue is that some minority families are not comfortable with visits from strangers when the husband is not home. In examining these cultural differences, Ashby and Garza began to realize that recruiters must be culturally aware if they are to increase the comfort zone for a diverse group of people. Awareness of these differences is also important in planning and conducting the meetings as well. Notices announcing the event should provide information about several factors that can influence meeting attendance. Child care, transportation, food, scheduling, and the availability of an interpreter can have a dramatic effect on a person’s decision to attend a meeting. Situations where reading and writing are required can distress those with language or education barriers. Ashby and Garza also noted the importance of ensuring that CLD populations are represented at all levels of a public engagement process so participants can see themselves in the process–as organizers, facilitators, or members of steering committees.

Ashby and Garza’s search for answers about how to reach people became part of the solution itself. In the process of building a network, they realized that two of the most important factors in this networking process are time and effort. Getting to know a community happens slowly. Someone from outside the community has to work to make connections with people beyond the surface level. Many people need to be invited to meetings by someone they know and trust who can lend credibility to the process. Finding those people who are known and trusted can be a labor-intensive process. Garza reports, "In some ways, it amazed us that we were able to find people who would give us the information we needed–we formed our own network." Going through the networking process gave them insight into the value of the process and the necessity of going through several layers of people to make sure you’ve made a connection with as many groups as possible.

Several publications document Ashby and Garza’s findings. Public Deliberation: A Tool for Connecting School Reform and Diversity, designed for schools and communities, provides a description of and purpose for public deliberation, a synopsis of school demographics with links to school reform, and a summary of several different public engagement formats. A guide that addresses the process of recruiting diverse participants is planned for distribution this summer. It will include the findings from the numerous interviews that Ashby and Garza conducted in North Little Rock, Oklahoma City, and Tulsa. A third publication, also expected later this summer, will serve as a school outreach guide, with the focus on helping schools to better connect with the CLD members in their communities outside of the study circle process.

Ashby and Garza’s project highlights both the importance of and the potential for including members of culturally and linguistically diverse populations in making decisions that affect them. The issue goes beyond "political correctness" or democratic practice. This inclusion directly correlates to the value for everyone of having as diverse and representative a population throughout the decision-making process. Educators overwhelmingly agree that family and community support is crucial in improving school effectiveness. Research on minority parent involvement and participation points to several student benefits: better academic achievement, enhanced English-language development, improved behavior in school relationships. And successful schools and students contribute directly to a community’s economic and social stability.

"You can value diversity and wish to have it as part of your process, whether that’s a study circle or another forum. Even so, if outreach and recruitment happen only in traditional ways, you won’t be able to bring members of CLD communities into the discussion. They won’t come," says Ashby. The Community Dialogue in Education Reform project is smoothing the path to incorporating greater diversity in school reform dialogue, not only by raising awareness of the need to address these issues, but also by giving educators the tools to translate good intentions into reality.

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