Ma'Lena Wirth is an ESL interpreter and paraprofessional at North Baker School in Baker City, Oregon. As part of her position, Ms. Wirth works with all of the ESL students in her school district, and has developed a family literacy and parent involvement program. Through the program, she has made great strides empowering and engaging her students' parents, and is sharing her model with educators across the state. In this interview with Colorín Colorado, Ms. Wirth discusses how she increases parent participation and confidence, how she encourages family literacy, and how she has helped her school and community learn how to support English language learners and their families.
Read more about Ms. Wirth in this article from the Baker City Herald.
*Note: English language learners are referred to as ESL students in this article.
North Baker Elementary
First, tell us about your school.
I work at North Baker Elementary in the Bakerside School District. Our district's ESL program for all students, K-12, is based at my elementary school. We don't have a huge district and our ESL population is small, but it's growing as more Spanish-speaking families settle in our community. We have a unique arrangement in our district — the middle and high school ESL students are bussed to the elementary school each morning for their ESL classes, and then return to their schools in the afternoon for their content courses. I go to the middle and high schools in the afternoon as well to provide them with tutoring.
What kind of ESL program do you have?
A small one! We do have one other ESL instructor, but she is not bilingual. I am the only interpreter in Baker County. Our students are placed in a mainstream classroom, and then pulled out for ESL instruction. We use the SIOP model, and I work with each teacher so that I know what they are expecting to do their lessons, and then let the parent know what's going on in the classroom. We do what we can to address the specific needs of each child to the best of our ability due to limited resources.
Where do your students come from?
They are all Latino, although we have had a few Chinese students during the last few years. Most of them come from the state of Zacatecas in Mexico. It is amazing to see how the Latino community has grown and that so many people already have connections to friends and relatives from home here in Oregon!
Another factor is that many families have been coming to Oregon from California and Washington to take their children out of the gang environment. While we have a little bit of gang activity, we've been able to keep on top of it and break it up quickly.
What are the industries drawing families to Baker County?
Most of my students' parents work in agriculture, the lumber industry, and construction. A few of my students' mothers recently began working for local hotels as well.
What are the first steps you take when you get a new student?
First, I find out where the family came from. I try to assess the students' previous academic experience, and I determine how long have they been in school. Sometimes that requires asking basic, explicit questions such as, "Can you tell me when you went to school?" It's not unusual for our students to have been in and out of school, so I try to get a realistic idea of how long they've actually been in a classroom.
Then we assess our students. Our state requires us to assess them in English, and I also do an informal assessment of their Spanish literacy skills so I can see where the kids are at. For example, have they developed phonemic awareness in Spanish? That information helps me anticipate what kind of transition the students will have. Transition can be a scary thing, and so I want to be as prepared as I can when students are getting started. Do they already know how to read? Will they be learning to read and learning English at the same time? That kind of information makes a big difference as we figure out where the students will be starting from.
What are the first steps you take to reach out to the parents?
Again, I have to assess each family's situation. It's important to meet parents where they are. The first step is to figure out the best way to communicate with each family. Are the parents literate? What good is it to send a newsletter if the parents can't read it? Is a phone call a better way to reach them? Or do they prefer letters because their schedules are erratic? Then I gather information for parents about the school, about reading, and about ways they can get involved in their child's school (I get a lot of my tips from Colorín Colorado!).
For parents who are new to the U.S. school system, I also make sure they understand their rights, and the school's standards and rules. I want them to understand all of this information for their own sake, but also so that we don't lose time going back to these issues later in the school year. Those issues can eat up a lot of time, and making a point to discuss them early in the school year saves me valuable time the rest of the year.
From there, every other month I meet with the parent — we discuss what's happening with their children on a daily basis and what's coming up in terms of schoolwork, tests, and school events.
You also have created a parent involvement program at your school.
Yes, and it has grown and thrived in our community. I am so proud of our program, and of our parents. When I started as a paraprofessional nine years ago and began working with students and families, I saw a huge gap in parent participation in our ESL program, often due to the lack of a formal education. I realized that parents believed that this was a barrier to participating in their children's education, because we weren't doing anything to make them think otherwise. Our correspondence was all written — what if they couldn't read? Our parent meetings took place when they had to work — how could they even try to get involved?
I was determined to remove that barrier because I believe that parents are children's first and most important teachers, and the examples they set have a tremendous impact. I began to wonder how we could expect parents to teach their children and support their education if they hadn't had any educational experience themselves.
I saw parents who were frustrated and had very low self-esteem; they were ready to give up, just like their children. I felt moved to educate and empower my parents, and the first step was to build their self-esteem so that they could demonstrate a positive attitude toward education in the home.
What does your program include?
Our program has a number of components; one element is the literacy program. We talk about ways to effectively read with children. For example, one day I asked one of my parents to read "Good Night, Moon" (a Spanish version) to me, and I got on the floor and started squirming around like an impatient child. She finished in 3 minutes, never stopped to engage me, and at the end, I said, "I'm bored." She answered, "That's what my daughter says!"
So I gave a demonstration of how to read the books in a way that engaged the children — we took 15 minutes to go through "Good Night, Moon," talking about the pictures, asking questions, connecting what we saw to our lives around us. I do a lot of modeling and demonstration like this, so that parents feel confident to try it themselves.
I also remind my parents that they can look at books with their children even if they can't read. I encourage parents to remember that this is also about storytelling and using imagination, and I remind them that we have a cultural advantage — Latinos are creative and colorful, and it's something we can take advantage of! I encourage our parents to draw from our warm, expressive, and interactive culture. So we use music, dancing, poetry, role-plays, etc. to engage the parents as well.
Are their any literacy resources that have been especially helpful in this area of the program?
I really like the Reading at Home with Your Child workshop from Delta Publishing, which is also available in Spanish (La lectura en casa con tus hijos). It includes a DVD or video, and parent pamphlets. This program features wonderful demonstrations about reading together, how to ask questions about the book, and learn about the parts of a book like the title, and the pictures, as well as how to figure out who the author and illustrator are. It also teaches parents how to choose a book for their child.
Part of the power of this program is that parents see people who look like them in the video, and they can relate to it more. They realize it's something they can do &mdahsh; these aren't activities for other families, but for theirs.
How have your parents responded to these activities?
My parents come out of their shells; it's so empowering. Often by the end of the session, I can't tell who can or can't read because everyone is looking at books!
One day I was doing some reading demonstrations and I saw one of the mothers crying. I became very concerned, and saw that she was watching her husband. I looked over to where he was sitting, huddled with his children who were crawling over him like monkeys as he looked at a book with them. "My husband has never opened a book," she said. It was the first time he had shared a book with his children! What an amazing thing to be a part of, and to help encourage for that family. The steps we took to get the father to that point were very, very simple — but they had to happen in a supportive environment where he wouldn't feel ashamed or inadequate about his reading difficulties.
Of course on the other side, as I work with children, they take what they have learned home. My little ones say, "I'm going to teach this to my dad tonight!" And I say, "I know you are, and it's a good thing for him to know!"
What else does your parent program include?
We talk about language. I try to make a point that if their children know how to read in Spanish, that will help them acquire the skills in English quite a bit faster regardless of academic background, and that being bilingual will be a great advantage. We also bring in people from the community — lawyers, nurses, doctors, pharmacists, etc. These are people who can inform parents about the kinds of things they need to know, such as information about immigration law or filling prescriptions. The less time parents have to spend worrying about and figuring out their day-to-day tasks, the more time they can spend focused on their children. In order for me to have my children 100% here, with 100% parent participation, we can't lose time worrying about these areas throughout the year.
My parents come to this country totally in the dark, so they won't know how to fill prescriptions or what to do if someone is pulled over on the freeway, but I give them this information so that they know where to go and they feel like they can ask for help as well. By making a point to educate my parents about these issues at the beginning, we can focus on other things! And I also teach a course on parenting wisely for parents of young children during the summer — all of it makes it easier in the long run.
There is no room for excuses. They can never say they didn't know because I have made sure they did know! And as it turns out, the more they know, the more the community welcomes them, because community members realize that the parents do want to participate actively in our community — they just don't always know how to start, or think that it is their place to get involved in a new community.
Another element includes computer literacy. I volunteered to teach my students' parents basic computer skills. We use a program where parents can check their kids' grades online, and my students knew that their parents couldn't look up their grades without using the computer, so I taught the parents how to use the program! No excuses for parents or children on that front either.
What has been the community response to your program?
The community has really stepped up and opened its arms. It wasn't always that way but we've come so far in recent years. For example, I reached out to all of my parents' employers seven years ago — I wrote them a letter, sharing my goals to increase parent involvement, and explained that most parents weren't able to attend parent-teacher conferences due to their work schedules.
Our local employers, as a result of that letter, have been very cooperative, and allow our parents some flexibility when they know there is a school conference or event that they need to attend.
It is a two-way street, however. Many schools begin to hold conferences in October. In this part of Oregon, October is potato time, and a lot of our families are harvesting potatoes. So we don't start our parenting classes or conferences until January, and we do our best to take employers' needs into consideration as well. That makes it easier for them to support our needs when we approach them.
What steps do you take to encourage parent participation in your program?
I tell my parents why I need them to come; I like to use the Spanish term companero, meaning companion, partner, someone who is in this with you. It drives that idea home for parents. I discuss what makes them want to come to a meeting. If they are required to go but they don't really care, they still probably won't go.
I use this comparison: If you were required to go to a meeting about cancer research, would you go? Probably not. But what if your child has cancer? Now would you go? Absolutely. Let's take it a step further — what if you never learn what the symptoms of cancer are? How will you ever know if your child has cancer? It's a dramatic example, but it makes the point that parents need to be informed in order to be effective partners — otherwise they will never know what to look for!
I talk with my parents about privilege and obligation; every person has a right to an education here in the U.S., including them. I get so fired up — it's free! When someone hands you an education, take it! My goal is to impress on my parents that they have an obligation to ensure that their children get everything they can from this education — that they make the most of this privilege and take it as far as they can, even when they get discouraged, so that their children can realize their potential.
What kind of impact do you think your program has had?
I am proud of its success. We have taken parents who never dreamed of meeting their child's teacher, and now have 100% participation at our parent-teacher conferences.
One night, two of my parents came to the school's general parent meeting with English-speaking parents and it was such a great moment. I made a big deal about it with my other parents because they took a big step, and it was thrilling to see them shake the principal's hand and making eye contact, rather than looking down. It was clear that they were there because they cared about their children, and it was such a wonderful example for my other parents.
I am also pleased that our parent involvement program is being used as a model for other school districts. I've shared my program with people across state, and will soon be presenting to the Oregon State School Boards Association. I also have been working AFT Oregon, so there's a chance for these kinds of steps we are taking to be used in other places as well. It's thrilling — I so love what I do, building my community with parents and families, and it's humbling as well. I know my families depend on me because I am often the first line of defense for them.
Personally it's very gratifying because I've never had anyone else to follow; I've had a lot of support along the way, but I was making it up as I went along, following my instincts. It's wonderful to see the program thrive and grow this way.
Have you had difficulties with some of your parents who may not support what you are doing?
Yes. It's not always easy with the families. Many families have made the decision that all of the children will work as soon as they are able, and that their jobs come first. I had one young man who was a football player and made it to the varsity team, which is a pretty big deal at our school. His sisters and brother had already dropped out ahead of him, and he never showed his jersey to his parents.
His parents didn't want him to come to practice, but his friends would pick him up. The family was very critical of his participation in extra-curricular activities, and they were critical of me. There was so much pressure on the children in that family, and on the parents as well. I think they came to just one football game.
Fortunately, the parents did come to his high school graduation; that's when the breakthrough happened. They cried the whole time. He was the first child in their family to graduate from high school, and they apologized to me. I said, "You could have thrown anything at me. I wasn't going to let him fail."
We can't blame parents for these kinds of challenges — it takes a real shift of thinking if you have never thought that anyone in your family could graduate from high school to believe that your child could. It takes a shift to believe that an education is going to be better for your child in the long run than the wages that they bring home each day. That's why it is so important to meet parents where they are at, and if the kids have a fire in their belly, to help them succeed.
What are some of the other success stories you've had?
I have worked with wonderful students. One of my first students to come out of the ESL program came to the U.S. in 8th grade. She had had a pretty good education in Mexico and things were looking promising for her. Then she left school in October and didn't come back until March. But she was serious about her studies; she did all of the work she missed, graduated from high school, and then put herself through a two-year degree program in legal transcription. She is now a legal secretary and has done very well for herself.
Another student of mind got married at 15 years of age. I was so concerned about her, especially when her husband decided he wanted to move back to Mexico. I made her husband promise she would continue to study in Mexico. Once she got to Mexico, though, her husband didn't want her to study. Can you believe that she left him and came back? "He promised you I would study, and he broke his promise. I told him that he made you a promise that he should have kept," she said.
We worked all summer long. She graduated on time, with her class, and then started working as a cashier at the local Safeway. Now she is the manager of the produce section and her boss adores her. She is the daughter of a single mother who is working two jobs, and one of five daughters. She is the first child to graduate; she has set a precedent for siblings and the family is so proud — and you can imagine the leap from working in the fields to managing produce at Safeway. Her entire community has shown great admiration for her, and is very proud of her accomplishments.
You mentioned this was a relatively new issue in your state and district. How do you help your fellow teachers, then, reach out to Hispanic families?
We are still finding our way. It's all evolving and developing and we are frequently changing our requirements and programs.
Throughout these transitions, I try to educate my peers in the same way I educate my parents. Again, it's important to meet teachers where they are at. I think many teachers are isolated in their classroom, and they also are now required to teach students they haven't been prepared to teach, such as ESL students, or kids with special needs.
That puts teachers in a very difficult, frustrating position, and it's important to understand where their frustration is coming from. At the same time, it's important not to resent students who need different kinds of instruction, because they are not to blame. I have done everything I can to prevent teachers from feeling resentment towards our students, and even though it's taken a long time, I believe we are in a much better place now.
Where do you start in that process?
I try to teach my fellow teachers how to build community by helping them understand our culture. First, I take on the misconceptions and stereotypes. I actually created a paper that is aimed at getting rid of the misconceptions that teachers may have about working with ESL students or their families. For example, a teacher may see that the Latino parents are less likely to come to parent-teacher conferences than other parents, and that absence is interpreted as a lack of concern on the part of the parents.
I take that assumption head on, and discuss such points as parents' work schedules and the reality that many of our parents may be working at more than one job. I also talk about parents' motivations for coming to this country, so that their child can receive a good education and can have the opportunities that they never had, and make the point that all of their sacrifice is in fact for their children. It's just a different way of expressing concern for their children.
We also discuss differences between parent participation in the U.S. and other countries. Many parents coming to this country from Latin American countries have different expectations about the parents' role at the school because their cultures see this role differently. There is an absolute respect for and deference to teachers, who are seen as the authority, and so while parents see themselves as responsible for education in the home, they don't see themselves as part of the school equation. In addition, without formal schooling, a parent's participation in their child's school in Mexico, for example, would be minimal at best, and that parent would never question the teacher.
When you have these factors — low self-esteem and confidence, limited English, uncertainty about U.S. schools and education, and different cultural factors — it becomes easier to understand why many parents hesitate to come to the school for meetings or school events, and it also becomes easier to address those challenges. It's so important to remember that this hesitation does not mean that parents don't care about their children's education. I try to help my colleagues look at these issues from another point of view so that we can work more effectively with our families and support our students.
What kinds of activities do you share with your colleagues during these discussions?
As I work with teachers, I give them a lot of literature, and I tell them what they are going to get from the reading, such as more familiarity with how birthdays are celebrated in Mexico, or what to expect if a child has a death in the family. The student whose family is in mourning may miss more days than expected, so the question is how can we help the student arrange to get work done while they are out or once they come back?
I discuss the difference between assimilation and acculturation, and I talk about how Spanish is different from English. I review the little things, like how the teachers can model correct language use as a way of error correction.
Finally, I demonstrate in the classroom, and the teachers at my school have been very open with me coming to their classrooms to have a little demonstration, and I work with all of the kids in those sessions.
How was this received at first?
It took awhile. I was very fortunate that my first principal knew what was coming down the pike, and was always a step ahead of the curve. She encouraged me to go trainings about working with ESL students, and started to build an ESL program at our school. It was a hard sell for the other staff at first, but one breakthrough came when we started to have some professional development about differentiated instruction, because it's something that's not exclusive to ESL students, and we could all take something away from it that was useful in our classrooms. It is good to remember that what is good for ESL students or kids with special needs is often good for mainstream students as well.
What would you say are the first steps teachers of ESL students can take to reach out to parents?
First, they can start with the basics. The school needs to become a safe environment for parents, so teachers can help them feel welcome, feel capable, and feel that they are a part of the education circle by educating them first. Then it's important to get rid of assumptions — let's not assume, for example, that a parent knows how to read to her child.
We can make school a more welcoming place, by discussing the importance of direct participation, by being pro-active and, for example, inviting parents the classroom first.
Teachers may feel guarded or intimidated by that prospect, so it's important that teachers feel comfortable as well. But some small steps can go a long way in building that relationship. Parents and teachers are partners — side by side, not one above the other.
I also know it's popular to offer food to parents at events, but I decided that I didn't want to feed parents. I wanted the only reason for their attendance to be that they loved their child enough to do what it took to support their education.
How did you get into this field?
By being the only bilingual person in Baker County! My children's teacher asked me to help in the classroom. I said that I had never done that, and she said she would show me what to do. That's what parents need, someone to get them started. I got really interested in this area, and I read everything I could about best practices. I learned from those who had done this before, and I trusted the people who had done it before. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Now I have been able to make these strategies my own.
What roles did your parents play in your education?
My parents had very different experiences. My mother completed third grade, and my father graduated from high school. My mother didn't drive, and my father worked 13 hours a day, 7 days a week. My father went to conferences in elementary school with an interpreter, but not in high school, because the school I went to was too far away.
They worked hard, and they told me that this was the reason I was going to get an education — so I wouldn't have to work the way they were working.
Education was always part of conversation, and my mother was a learner. When I'd come home, she asked me what I learned, and she wanted to me teach her and show her. When I went home and taught my mother, it reinforced what I learned, and I also realized what I didn't understand. I share that with my parents, so they can think about the ways they can encourage their children's education. I ask them, Where's you purpose? Where's your passion?
What keeps you going every day?
I work with students and parents who are amazing, including a lot of parents who are very successful single parents. They are so motivated and so focused on their kids' needs, not their wants. They are good contributors to society, and it's a joy to connect parents with each other. They become a real network of support. They can discuss issues, dynamics, trouble with their children — everyone needs support and collaboration. I ask parents to share their success stories, especially when another parent is facing the same challenge.
I say, "Hey, tell them how it's done! What did you do?" And then parents realize they are not alone, that many of these challenges are normal, and this is how they can respond. I tell my families that we have an advantage — we know community, and we know family. That's a tremendous advantage! To see them open up, get involved, to truly invest in this partnership — that's what makes all the difference in the world, and what helps me keep going in my work day after day.