Hitting the books

Language barrier is biggest hurdle in immigrants’ involvement in their kids’ education

PROVIDENCE — The students at the English for Action (EFA) facility, located on the Manton Avenue Flea Market, 122 Manton Ave., listen intently to Ana Ramirez in spite of having been at work for at least eight hours earlier. Sometimes more.

“Where, do, you, live?” said Ana Ramirez, a Brown student who facilitates English-language classes for adults at EFA, asking the students to repeat and answer the question.

The eight students there were originally from Central America. It is populations such as this that was recently addressed in a Migration Policy Institute study, “Immigrant Parents and Early Childhood Programs: Addressing Barriers of Literacy, Culture and Systems Knowledge,” focused on immigrant parents with little English skills and their access to information and services on their children’s education.

“The primary challenge that we saw for sure [in terms of adults being participants in their children’s education],” said study co-author Maki Park, “is a lack of adult education opportunities.”

Ana Ramirez, a facilitator for English for Action, runs an activity for her English Class. (Kevin G. Andrade\O Jornal)

Ana Ramirez, a facilitator for English for Action, runs an activity for her English Class. (Kevin G. Andrade\O Jornal)

It is just that gap which groups such as EFA are attempting to address.

“It is a motivation for me,” said Ana Escobar, an immigrant from El Salvador with two kids in Providence Public Schools and an English student. “The parents of these kids are Spanish-speakers and their schools conduct things in English… I can’t help my kids like I want to.”

That translates not only into linguistic issues, but cultural ones as well.

“When the parent has a high level of education, studies show this has a positive impact,” said Park. “The higher level of education a person has, the higher the expectations are on their kids.”

Many of those who come to English for Action seeking services aren’t even capable of reading in their native tongues. As a result they need to first start with the basics of literacy in their native tongue. That’s where Rosario Pren, an immigrant from Mexico who teaches Spanish language literacy, comes in.

“When they are at the most basic it’s really difficult to get them to a level where they are speaking English fluently,” and get involved with their childrens education, said Pren. “In elementary school they’ve already decided who’s going to be successful and who isn’t… If you’re not involved as a parent, how are you going to be able to influence you’re children’s outcomes?”

While this is a problem amongst the Spanish-speaking community, it affects Portuguese-speakers as well.

“They have substantial barriers and this has to do with the fact that most of these parents aren’t very well educated,” said Cape Verdean community activist Spencer DeMelo. “They’re not well educated not only in the laws and regulations here, but also in the general knowledge of how things work here.”

DeMelo also feels that there is a need for schools to continue providing translation services to these communities.

“Most of them [parents] speak Portuguese or English. Most of the officials in schools speak English,” he continued. “They feel uneasy in approaching these school officials about whatever issues their children may be having.”

DeMelo also put emphasis on the need for community role models to present themselves to school officials and students in order to present to them options that may have not been clear before due to the language barrier.

“What also helps a lot is reaching directly to these kids,” said DeMelo, who attempted to go in and speak at several area high schools about careers in accounting, including Shea in Pawtucket. “My frustration was mainly being unable to reach out to these Cape Verdean students and always getting the run around.”

Donald Miller, the principal at Shea, responded when O Jornal brought this incident to his attention. While unable to recall this particular instance, he did say that interaction with the community is a priority.

“Obviously, we want to embrace every opportunity we get,” said Miller. “I’ve never had an opportunity to speak with this gentleman and I’d like to speak with him about coming in, if he’s still interested, in the future.”

When asked about attending to the language needs of students and their families, Miller said that Shea does make an effort.

“Personally, I haven’t seen those complaints lodged against us,” he said. “We do have various ways in which we try to engage the community…We have translation devices that we use… We have high-level students with skills in English and whatever language is needed translate.”

Those who have made it through and learned English, say that it was worth the effort.

Maria Raposo, an Azorean immigrant, also turned to EFA to learn English. (Kevin G. Andrade\O Jornal)

Maria Raposo, an Azorean immigrant, also turned to EFA to learn English. (Kevin G. Andrade\O Jornal)

“I’ve taken the English classes,” said Maria Raposo, a graduate of EFA’s English program who immigrated from S. Miguel 21 years ago. “But the place (EFA) is geared towards Spanish-speakers. I love it here, but still… If there were a program for Portuguese speakers, I would have gone there. But there wasn’t any.”

Raposo said that her English skills were good enough for speaking, but did not work when she had to communicate over the phone or schools would send home things written in English. There were no materials sent from Providence Public Schools in Portuguese.

Her two daughters, one who is seven and another who is 15 and a student at Classical High School, have helped her a lot throughout the years.

“They are kind of my teachers,” she said.

Yet, funding for programs that could help to bridge the language gap is being cut, according to MPI.

This is an experience EFA is familiar with said Kim Kohler, its Education Director.

“We’re not getting enough funding,” she said. “We’re asking for more, but it’s not going too well.”

Most of their funds come from the Rhode Island Department of Education, yet Kohler says this is insufficient to do as much work as they would really like to.

For Raposo, this is a shame.

“There should be more schools like this around,” she concluded.


1 Comment

  1. Anice Barbosa

    This is really interesting. As a Shea alumna and an immigrant myself I can agree with a lot of points made in this article. Shea always had translators on hand for both students and parents (Mrs. Lopes and another one whose name I cant recall right now, during my time) my parents never shied away from an opportunity because they knew “someone there would speak creole.” I recall even volunteering for open houses (at Shea and at local middle schools) to do translation my senior year for both Cape Verdean parents and Spanish-speaking parents. It’s a shame if that has been done away with. They should really utilize their bilingual students.

    Shea’s ESL education is superb, if you put in the effort and want to learn. During my time there, there were several ESL teachers who took the time to personalize student’s education. I attended a summer program just for ESL students who wanted to fast track the learning process and I did an after school program (STAR: student and teachers achieving results)everyday my junior year and it all paid off. By my senior year and in “mainstream courses” I was fluent and college became a real possibility. My only complaint is that Shea didn’t really encourage me to pursue college, it was something that I had to do all on my own.

    On the whole parent education front, I don’t think it’s an either or thing. While parents’ education would solve “all of our issues” when it comes to involvement, that is simply not feasible for everyone. My parents often worked two jobs each so they could support me and my siblings through college, when will they find time to attend this program? I know i’m not alone when I say that it’s hard for parents to make their education a priority when they have to make sure their kids’ needs are met. I think school admins have a big role to play in communication with parents. For one, make different language documents available, the same way hospitals and community health centers do. Especially in cities like Providence and Pawtucket. Communicate with parents when their kids are sophomores and juniors and encourage them to pursue higher ed… anyway.

    I have a lot of strong opinions about this.