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Cultural Misunderstandings Sabotage Parental Involvement

By Staff Sgt. Kathleen T. Rhem, USA
American Forces Press Service

ARLINGTON, Va., Nov. 8, 1999 – Cultural misunderstandings may keep some parents from becoming involved in their children's schools, educators contend.

"A lot of parents not educated in the United States are not comfortable coming into American schools," said Francisco Millet, coordinator for the English as a Second Language program in the Department of Defense Education Agency here. Their different backgrounds or language barriers might keep foreign- born parents from fully participating in parent-teacher conferences or school programs, he said. This is detrimental to their children's education.

"One of the strongest indicators of a child's success in American schools is parental involvement. This is as true for language-minority students as for every other student," Millet said. In some other countries, in Latin America, for example, parental involvement in school matters is disrespectful because it questions authority, he said.

Language differences are another strong deterrent, Millet said. "For many parents there's nobody at all in the school who speaks their language except for their child, but they shouldn't let that keep them from coming into the school," he said. He suggested parents with this challenge find a neighbor or a friend who can translate for them -- they should avoid using their children as translators.

"It puts a lot of pressure on the children, especially when it comes to a serious issue," he said.

He also suggested parents volunteer in the classroom. "Anyone can learn to say 'Hello' in another language," he said. "And you don't need to speak the language to help get children ready to go out to the playground or volunteer in the cafeteria."

Some parents may be able to communicate in English, but not be completely comfortable doing so. Millet said it's especially important for these parents not to feel intimidated about being active in the school.

"When children see them going into the school and working on their own English skills, that's a wonderful example for the children," he said. "It's motivating."

Millet said letting language or cultural differences keep parents from becoming involved in their children's education sends the wrong message. "It's not a sign of disrespect for parents to come into the schools. It's the opposite," he said. "If they don't come into the schools, teachers, administrators and other parents will think they don't care about their children's education, when that's not the case at all."

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