Natural Leaders Program Connects Non-English Speaking Parents to School

In recent years, Odyssey Elementary has experienced a dramatic increase in the number of immigrants, refugees and English Language Learner (ELL) families. Eleven years ago, our student population was only about 3 to 4 percent ELL students, while last year nearly 25 percent of students were ELL. Our school is wonderfully diverse in terms of ethnicity, with an ethnic minority population of 55 percent.

Having such a high percentage of ELL families presents challenges. We needed a way to reach out to these families and help them connect with our school and our community, to understand what was happening, and to feel comfortable participating in their children’s education.

In June 2005, I met with Jonelle Adams, Executive Director of the Washington Alliance for Better Schools. She invited Odyssey (and another elementary school in our district) to join their existing “Readiness to Learn” grant, which funds the Natural Leader program. The main goal of the program is to improve student academic success by increasing parent involvement and engagement in the school. Schools in neighboring school districts were already involved in the program, and were having success with it.

The grant allows us to provide small stipends to parents who serve as liaisons between the school and our Spanish, Russian and Ukrainian speaking families. (The Readiness to Learn grant funds two stipends; two additional stipends are funded through Title 1 funds.) The grant also funds special training of these Natural Leaders through a local community college.

We recruited parents who were already involved in our school, recognized as leaders in their respective communities, and who were interested in helping build connections between families and our school. Specific goals listed on the Natural Leaders job description include:

Help develop community neighborhoods/groups;

Build social connections among families;

Listen to families about schools and their children so that schools can learn more about these families’ needs;

Work with families and schools to offer activities to help their children be successful in school.

We currently have four Natural Leaders. The main work of Odyssey’s Natural Leaders includes the following:

Monthly telephone calls to Spanish, Russian and Ukrainian speaking families – welcoming them to the school, informing them of school activities and events, finding out about student and family needs, answering questions, etc.

Translation of school information – newsletters, activity announcements, etc.

Informal interpreting – helping families with registration paperwork; making calls for teachers and administrators about attendance issues, homework, activities, etc.

Hosting informational evenings – (all in Spanish so far) on topics of interest to parents. Topics have included accessing health care, immigration and immigrant rights information, legal issues, accessing counseling/mental health support, school curriculum and school programs

Hosting social and family events – dinners, movie nights, get to know your neighbor nights

Promoting and encouraging attendance at English classes for parents – we pay for the English teacher and childcare through our 21st Century Grant funds.

Responding to messages on Spanish voicemail line

Helping individual families access community services – medical, dental, vision, housing, food

Assisting with kindergarten orientation and our Back-to-School Night event

Supporting Madres Latinas group – this began as a small group of Spanish speaking women who were lonely and isolated. We provided a place for them to meet, talk and get to know one another. The group has expanded and now meets every Wednesday morning. The group is now much more comfortable in the school and with one another. They began as a social connection group and now assist with several volunteer projects, including hosting staff recognition events, making decorations for school events, assisting with fundraising projects, etc.

Supporting Padres Latinas group – At one of the informational nights, a guest speaker talked about the importance of the involvement of fathers in the school. The dads in attendance responded by volunteering for their first school service project. Dads and kids showed up on a Saturday and worked for hours to build a path through our native growth area in order to improve the use of this area as an environmental education space. They have plans to continue with school service projects.

After one year with the program we have seen very positive results. Parents are more comfortable and feel more welcomed at our school. They have made wonderful connections with one another and are much more knowledgeable about school programs and goals – as well as community resources. We have increased the attendance of non-English speaking families at school events and these parents are asking more questions, initiating more contact with the school, and are clearly much more comfortable at Odyssey Elementary School.

Name of School, Organization, or Location of Program/Event:
Odyssey Elementary School
Everett, Washington 98204

Submitted by: , Principal

Links to Additional Information/Resources:


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