How Parents Organize to Bring Second Language Learning into Their Public Schools

How Parents Organize to Bring Second Language Learning into Their Public Schools
Bilingual Education Parenting Bilinguals Uncategorized

Languages other than English (LOTE) instruction has continued to decline for students in public elementary and middle school over the past decades (click here for more details of this trend).  With tighter budgets directly tied to performance on standardized achievement tests, many administrators view LOTE programs as  unnecessary for academic success, especially for districts in which the majority of the students already speak the dominant language, English.  As a consequence, the lack of academic value that is assigned to second language learning in these early grades have made these programs easy targets for budget cuts.  This is occurring at a time when more and more studies show the cognitive and social emotional benefits of second language learning.   As a result, many informed parents have begun to organize to put pressure on their  local districts to offer LOTE programs in early education and elementary school.  Their efforts have slowly begun to payoff.

How Parents Unite to Bring Second Language Instruction to their Local Schools:

PTA Funded In-School Programs

In wealthy districts like Tarrytown and Barton Hills in Austin Texas, where median household income is more than $84,000, many PTA groups have been successful at  organizing fundraisers to self-finance language learning programs to benefit all students in their district.  Some of these PTA funded programs have been successful at sustaining their LOTE programs.  However, many PTA funded programs like this often begin strong only to  fizzle out within a few years later.  We found that the success of PTA funded LOTE programs are limited to and highly dependent upon three key factors:

(1) the cohesiveness of the PTA’s stance on LOTE programs,

(2) the PTA’s fundraising abilities, and

(3) the willingness of the school administration to set aside time in the school day for language instruction that does not crowd out other important programs (including recess).  

After-School Second Language Learning Classes

In wealthy districts where one of these three measures fail to hold, many parents opt to simply bring after-school language learning programs to the school so that the parents who want language learning can directly pay for their child to have language learning classes after regular school hours.  Such after-school programs have become increasing popular and are more commonly found in wealthier school districts.    Despite welcomed increase growth, these LOTE programs are fundamentally limited to:

 (1) children whose parents understand the value of those programs,

(2) children whose parents have the funds to pay for those programs,

(3) children who can withstand intensive extended instruction time after already being in school for more than 7 hours,

(4) children who do not have competing programs on the days the LOTE programs are offered.

Both of the aforementioned methods to bring LOTE programs to students ( PTA funded in-school classes and parent paid after school programs) rely on the existence of independent private institutions that can be contracted to bring those LOTE programs to the district.  The quality of independent programs vary greatly; and because they are expensive, they are often out of reach economically to poorer districts with limited resources and fundraising mechanisms.

Independent Non-Profit for LOTE Instruction In-School

Parents in a moderately wealthy district in Austin created a new alternate route for providing in-school LOTE instruction for each elementary student in their district at a fraction of the cost of the above described outsourcing methods.  The parents at Lee Elementary formed a separate non-profit organization called Amigos de Russell Lee to fund and oversee second language instruction in their school.

The benefits of creating a separate non-profit had several immediate benefits.  

  • One clear benefit was that by removing the funding and oversight of the LOTE instruction from the PTA committees, political infighting within the PTA committees on this topic was hampered.  Speaking with two parents who were involved in setting up the non-proft, they explained to me every year, the PTA committee would send out a survey to see if parents were interested in Spanish instruction in their school.  The results on the survey were fairly consistent year after year with approximately 75% in favor of Spanish instruction and approximately 25% not in favor.  However, these parents found that depending on which parents were involved in the PTA and to what level, the parents that represented the minority could easily curtail the efforts of LOTE instruction within PTA.  Thus, by creating the independent non-profit, the organizing and funding for the LOTE program no longer required PTA committee approval or support.  Instead, the non-profit is able to work in the interest of the majority of parents who support LOTE instruction through direct outreach and follow-up surveys that demonstrate broad support.

 

  • Another benefit was that it gave the nonprofit leadership direct access to the  school administration to hold it more accountable in delivering quality LOTE instruction.  Rather than having to work through the PTA, which manages a wide variety of issues, a separate non-profit allows parent representatives to have more effective and direct face time with the principal  and the administration staff specifically on LOTE instruction and it allows for the creation of accountability measures to make ensure that the LOTE instruction is being implemented effectively and efficiently.

 

  • Thirdly, the nonprofit was able to collaborate more effectively with administration and staff, which lead to huge cost savings for LOTE instruction.  By taking advantage of the fact that many of the teachers at Lee  Elementary also have Spanish as a second language, the non-profit and school administration was able to utilize existing teachers to create effective Spanish language instruction for each grade by offering an increased stipend for bilingual education to those teachers, rather than hiring external part-time language instructors.  By using existing teachers rather than a private independent organization, parents saved many thousands of dollars per year without sacrificing effective Spanish language instruction.

How to create an effective nonprofit to promote LOTE programs in your school

We asked the parents how might other parents organize to create their own nonprofit to support LOTE instruction in their schools.  Here is their response:

  • Identify Interest in LOTE instruction and build core constituents.

    • For Lee Elementary, the annual survey and the long term commitment through PTA fundraising for LOTE instruction demonstrated an existing high level of interest in offering Spanish language instruction to every student.  The key to create a nonprofit then was to find the parents who were also interested in taking the group to the next level by forming a core number of constituents.  This core number of constituents and broad support based on the surveys demonstrated to the school administration that the parents of Lee students were serious about having an effective Spanish language instruction for Lee students.
  • Communicate what the goal is right up front.

    • At very first meeting the team must define a unifying message.  This will require a leader or leaders who can help constituents first identify reasons for LOTE instruction such as cultural or academic exposure and then help unify those reasons under a common actionable goal.  For Amigos de Russell Lee the actionable goal is that each student in each grade receives appropriate level of Spanish language instruction beginning with 30 minutes per week with the ultimate goal of reaching 90 minute per week.
  • Define multiple leadership roles to avoid leadership fatigue.

    • With different parents taking on different roles, the burden is shared and more manageable and sustainable.  Roles include chair over curriculum development, oversight chair, school administration liaison, secretary.  Be sure to have someone to schedule regular meeting to keep momentum alive to achieve goals.
  • Demonstrate to the school that your organization can fund the initiative.

    • Before initiating the creation of a nonprofit, the PTA of Lee Elementary had a long history of fundraising to pay for Spanish language instruction.  Yet, in confronting the school administration through this new endeavor, organizers recognized that they could not afford to wait to see what funds they could raise later in the year through fundraising.  So to address the issue of funds head on, the nonprofit organizers asked parents in each grade if they would be willing to make a financial pledge and to state what that pledge would be toward Spanish language instruction.  The results of a pledge for each grade gave the nonprofit considerable leverage to demonstrate that they not only had the backing of the parents but also that parents were willing to pledge funds to help fund it.  With broad parent support and money to fund it, the resistance to promote Spanish language learning in both the administration and PTA diminished.

Limits:

Despite lower costs to implement, organizing an independent nonprofit still poses significant challenges.  First and foremost, it requires parents who already value the learning of a second language and who are willingness to support it financially.  It  not only requires parents who have both the time and resources to organize and finance the LOTE instruction but also relies on existing teachers to have some level of proficiency to teach in the desired second language.  As a result, parents in poorer districts with limited resources and limited parent engagement may find this approach challenging to implement.  For this reason, we need to continue to put pressure on public school districts to offer quality access to second language learning for all students beginning in early education and continuing through middle school, regardless of wealth.