Getting to Know Our Families’ Cultural and Social Assets: The View from Dearborn, MI

Nadra Shami currently serves as a Language and Literacy SIOP Trainer in Dearborn, MI. The daughter of immigrants, Nadra grew up in Dearborn and her first job was at the school she attended as a child. To learn more about Nadra’s work and the EL support offered in Dearborn, take a look at her interview as the February 2017 WIDA Featured Educator.

Can you tell us a little bit about the Dearborn school district and its ELL / immigrant / refugee population?

The district, which is just outside of Detroit, currently has the highest number of English learners (ELs) in the state of Michigan. The EL population is increasing due to steady immigration and the relocation of families from other districts. Our students come from thirty-two language minority backgrounds, the majority of which are Arabic, Urdu, and Spanish. DPS has over 21,000 students in 22 elementary schools, 7 middle schools, 3 high schools and a number of other technical programs and centers. English Learners comprise about 50% of the student population. This includes about 2,000 immigrant students (who have been in US schools 3 years or less) and about 300 refugee students. The percentage of ELs varies in each school across the district and becomes significantly higher in lower socioeconomic areas of the city.

Tell us about your EL Department Team and the role they play.

The Dearborn school district has recognized the educational needs of English Learners and has established supported programs for them since 1976.

The EL and Compensatory Education program is a support that enables our linguistically diverse children to achieve the same challenging academic standards required of all students in the district. The district team is led by the EL Director and EL Coordinator and includes three Language and Literacy SIOP Trainers and a Language and Literacy SIOP Coach. The EL Director and EL Coordinator are a power pair that drive and support district initiatives by making decisions in the best interest of kids. Along with other responsibilities, each Language and Literacy SIOP Trainer is assigned to support one of three feeder tracks. A couple years ago, Dearborn’s Superintendent restructured the district and made the change to feeder tracks to create a seamless transition for students as they move from elementary to middle school to high school. We have three comprehensive high schools in Dearborn; a feeder track is made up of one high school, the middle schools that feed into that high school and the elementary schools that feed into those middle schools. The idea is that initiatives, focus areas and expectations from the lowest levels will all flow into the high school that students feed into. Additionally, the Language and Literacy SIOP Coach supports new departmental teachers working with English Learners in their first years on the job--the most critical time for job-embedded support. 

The district team is truly dedicated to supporting the coordination of supplemental services for English Learners by planning and facilitating systematic professional development opportunities for administrators, teachers and support staff, including working side by side with the school-based English Language Development Specialists, superstars who take on a variety of roles. This includes working collaboratively with all stakeholders to ensure that English Learners are provided with meaningful access to content while developing academic language. The district team also plays an important role in state-level work related to our special populations. This includes facilitating workshops across the state as well as serving on regional, state, and national advisory committees.

Check out our Blog for more info about our District Power Team and the EL department initiatives:

What kinds of systems do you have in place to welcome and support refugee families?

All Dearborn Schools have an English Language Development (ELD) Specialist who welcomes and interviews students potentially eligible for English Language services based on the home language survey. ELD Specialists interact with the student to find out background information and initiate assessment and placement. A contact is made with the student’s parents. This contact will lay the foundation for positive interaction and communication between the parents and school, as well as parental involvement in the child’s education.

Many of the refugees that register for school in the US have often lived in a country with an unstable infrastructure for years due to extreme conditions like poverty, war and disasters. They enter our school system with many basic needs. In 2016-17 school year, a “New Families” District Committee was formed to evaluate and address the needs of the growing population of refugee students enrolled in Dearborn Public Schools. The committee plans and facilitates exclusive parent meetings for refugee families at a central location to act upon our district vision by establishing a partnership with parents and addressing their families’ needs through school and community outreach.  Parents are contacted and invited to the meeting via phone and a letter sent home. The committee also worked with district transportation services to arrange for parents to be picked up from their nearest elementary school building and transported to the Administrative Service Center (ASC) for the meeting. Busses also transport parents back to the elementary buildings after the meeting.

What are the primary concerns and questions your families have?

During our initial “New Families” district meeting a parent survey was administered and completed by parents with native language support. Survey results assist in planning future meetings and making ‘next step’ decisions. Some of the areas of need (based on parent feedback) included a need for Adult ESL classes, Health and Dental concerns, Jobs and Financial Support, Legal advice and Special Education services.

Can you provide some examples of steps that have been taken to address those concerns, as well as examples of collaboration and community partnerships?

To address the families’ needs, follow-up meetings were planned with opportunities for parents to enroll in ESL classes, local groups were invited to discuss health and dental options, and a more specific career survey was distributed to find out parents’ previous occupations (in their home countries) and the skills they possess. The committee also reached out to community outreach organizations who presented on ways they can help address the families’ needs. Support ranged from food distribution to after school programs focused on academic and/or physical engagement. Other presentations included a district team preparing information for parents regarding the roles and services of school psychologists, speech pathologists, social workers, etc. Representatives from the local credit union presented on the financial services they provide and shared tips on establishing credit. During another session, a pair of legal attorneys led a segment titled “Know Your Rights” which was greatly appreciated by the families given their new arrival to the country.

What are some of the strengths of your families upon which they are drawing right now?

Every family has a story. As educators, we need to be willing to listen to their “where I came from” stories, their “what’s important to me” stories, and to all the other stories that make up who they are. When we truly get to know our English learners and their families, it is easy to acknowledge the social and cultural capital they bring, such as resilience, collectivism, commitment and courage. It’s our job as educators to get to know students’ strengths and to use what we learn about them to implement culturally responsive approaches aimed at improving their educational experiences.

What are some examples you’ve seen of how teachers or schools are supporting families effectively?

We have developed, over the years, a cadre of professionals who are resourceful in working with parents. Many elementary and middle schools hold parent education meetings once a month. Language and Translation Assistance is provided for parents that need language support. A district Parent Support Educator also supports schools by providing Parent Talk workshops. Parent Talk is a skills-based and research-based parenting program that provides parents with practical, usable verbal strategies for raising responsible children. The skills reduce family conflict and build family solidarity while encouraging autonomy and mutual respect. Other school level initiatives include Parents as Partners Open House where parents are welcomed to do classroom walk-throughs during instructional time to see the teaching and learning in action. Technology sessions are offered to bring parents up to speed with tech tools and skills in order to bridge the digital divide. Throughout the year, staff members partner up with outreach programs to organize clothing and food drives for families in need as well as celebratory and enrichment opportunities for kids. Home visits are also utilized to support families while strengthening the home-school connection.

You get a lot of visitors to your district! What do you think is working well that visitors want to see?

Our district gets many visitors from other districts for a variety of reasons but mainly related to our work with diverse populations. We credit this to the hard work of dedicated staff at all levels as well as Michigan's spotlight on Dearborn’s successful EL program.

  • For example, one district team visited because they are in the process of evaluating their EL program and they were particularly interested in guidance toward the push-in delivery model for EL support. They were enthralled to see how ELD Specialists work directly with general education teachers to support the content delivery and language development of English Learners. The visit included opportunities to see successful models of coaching and co-teaching as well as collaboration that works.
  • Another district recently experienced a significant growth in their EL population in the past year and recognized the need to restructure their EL services and professional development. The team of administrators and teachers were interested in how we schedule English Learners, including course placement, procedures and protocols, resources, staffing, and professional learning. The team was extremely impressed by the consistency and emphasis on explicit content and language objectives, student engagement, student articulation of tasks, and the positive climate and culture in every classroom they visited. In addition, they appreciated the opportunity to discuss our professional development structure and the impact it has on staff which was evidenced as they visited classrooms.
  • We have also had a couple of out-of-state visits. For example, a district team from California visited to learn how our district supports the teaching and learning of English Learners as well as the specific initiatives the EL Department has in place to serve refugees, a population that is growing exponentially. The visitors spent two days walking through classrooms and meeting with school staff to debrief and get their questions answered. The discussions were astounding as they were really impressed with what Dearborn has in place for meeting the needs of all students. Some of the topics that were positively highlighted through observations and dialogue were the collaborative teaching models, the focus on academic language development, the emphasis on all four language domains, the positive culture and climate in the schools (including the positive relationships among staff and between staff and students), the centralized professional development for support staff and the depth and breadth of professional development opportunities provided to staff.
  • A district from Indiana visited Dearborn Public Schools to learn about the successful EL practices our district has in place. The Indiana team was seeking a district with a large Arabic-speaking population (a new population to their district) that is “highly effective at all aspects that effect interactions with the EL population regarding family contact, cultural sensitivity and best practices.” In collaboration with the Michigan Department of Education, Dearborn was recommended as a district to visit.

Would you tell us about some of the training you’ve done for colleagues about cultural responsiveness and cultural assets of Arab-American / Muslim children with information about goals, activities, and responses from colleagues:

The EL Department district staff has facilitated professional development on culturally responsive instruction for administrators, support staff and classroom teachers. Sessions have included 1) an overview on developing cultural proficiency, 2) what teachers should know about economically disadvantaged students, 3) Understanding Refugees and 4) an examination between Arab home culture versus school culture. Many participants expressed their gratitude for the “eye-opening” workshops.

One instructional coach shared:

“A huge thank you and shout out to [the district EL team] for a critical, moving, emotional PD on refugees, Cultural Proficiency and responsive teaching. It was fabulous. It was important. It was wrenching. It was heartbreaking. We have no idea how much we have to be thankful for.”

Additionally, the session on “Culturally Responsive Teaching: Getting to Know Your Arab Students” was presented at a workshop organized by the county’s Intermediate School District (ISD) which included teachers from across the county. The session was also presented at the National Association for Bilingual Education a couple of times. The presentation sought to dismantle normative assumptions while examining the mismatch between home cultures and US school culture in order to create positive and valuable change in individual and social systems. Participants were able to develop an understanding of the cultural capital students bring and how implementation of culturally responsive practices can impact social and academic success.

Could you share material or an example of what #4 (an examination between Arab home culture versus school culture) might look like?

Dismantling assumptions sometimes requires an examination of home culture versus school culture. (see chart below for a sample of considerations) For example, many of our children come from homes where improvisation is a norm — they make do with what they have. When some are accustomed to not having their basic needs met (let alone wants), making whatever is available work for them becomes a way of life. In U.S. schools, standardization is viewed as a means to success. There is a set of rules, agreements and procedures (spoken or unspoken) that everyone is expected to adhere to in order to ensure good performance. In other words, there is a way of doing things and conformity is expected.

Now imagine a second-grade classroom, where the teacher asks kids to silently copy down their spelling words. A little boy searches his desk and does not find a pencil or pen. He turns to his peers but in an effort to follow the ‘no talking’ expectation, he doesn’t ask for a writing utensil. Finally, he finds a red crayon among his things and begins to copy down the spelling words in an effort to follow directions. Upon seeing this, the teacher approaches the student and is peeved with what he is doing. Why couldn’t he just do what he was asked to do? Why would anyone copy a spelling list with a red crayon? This example illustrates a mismatch between home and school cultures.  Although not immediately evident to the teacher, the student was improvising in an attempt to conform to school expectations or standards, yet the student's actions might be viewed as being uncooperative.  

Examining the influences of home and school cultures has nothing to do with labeling one practice as right and the other as wrong or one as good and the other as bad. To be clear, it’s not that the student should continue to do all his writing in red crayon, but neither should he be reprimanded for improvising while attempting to follow directions. As educators, it’s more important to acknowledge that there might be another perspective—then respond accordingly. Take the opportunity to teach about school practices and ways in which students could seek help when they are not sure what to do. In other words, create a risk-free classroom environment: Reflect. Ask questions. Clarify. Build understanding. Negotiate. Then, respond.

What are some particular concerns of Arab-American and Muslim families?


Our community faces many of the same concerns as any other community including basic rights and other common social and emotional issues. Additionally, the reality is that common occurrences of racial and religious discrimination do exist.  However, for the most part, within our city, we are very fortunate to have a nurturing community and a district that assures parents of its commitment to welcome and support all families.

Are there things teachers who are new to working with Arab-American or Muslim students can do to make individual students and families feel welcome and supported in the classroom?

In today’s climate, in order to make a positive impact, educators need to make a conscious effort to dismantle assumptions and acknowledge the cultural capital Americans of Arab descent and Muslim students bring with them. Rather than neglecting or overlooking the diverse needs, reach out to families and find out more about them--where are they in their journey, what are their needs and wants, how are they feeling, etc. Another way to learn more is to reach out to organizations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations. CAIR is a Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization. Their headquarters are located in Washington D.C. with many chapters around the country. They provide many publications including reports, guides and toolkits. Organizations could also request speakers on a variety of relevant topics. Connecting with local mosques and other community groups (if available) are also a great idea.

Keep in mind that Arabs and Muslims are two distinct groups; the first can trace their roots to a country whose dominant language is Arabic, the other is based on religious identification. Neither group is a homogenous mass and both groups have been in America for decades, if not centuries. The best way to bring people together is to ask questions and initiate conversation. Families not only welcome inquiries but they appreciate them as a way to avoid misinformation from spreading.

It’s best to not assume that a language barrier exists; however, if one is identified and a staff member is not available for language assistance, reach out to other members of the community willing to help. There are also apps like Apple’s My Language Pro that serve as a great resource for translation. And remember, smiles and positive body language also go a long way!

Educators must also recognize that their own personal culture influences how they see and respond to others. We are all cultural beings; we all have biases of what we know and are familiar with. What's “normal” is relative and varies from time to time and from place to place. Taking the time to do some individual introspection in order to successfully “de-bias” will help build bridges and develop compassion for others. Be cognizant of your own thoughts by paying attention when unconscious biases arise and intentionally replace stereotypical responses with an unbiased one. Assume that all parents care about their children so if there is a mismatch between home and school culture, encourage families to provide insight that will help teachers in the classroom. Be sensitive to the cultural differences that exist among different groups and respond appropriately.

Your district union is affiliated with our founding partner, the American Federation of Teachers. How does your department partner and collaborate with the Dearborn Federation of Teachers?

The EL Director and Coordinator work closely with the DFT president for staffing needs. For example, in the event that an appropriate certified teacher is not available for a bilingual department position from the pool of new hire candidates, an agreement between the selected new hire candidate and the designee of Dearborn Public Schools is signed and filed with Human Resources. The new union member accepts the position with the understanding that he/she will meet the requirements of the collective bargaining agreement between the DFT which entails obtaining credits toward an ESL or bilingual endorsement.

Another example of collaboration is that this fall, in partnership with the DFT, the EL Department will help provide professional development opportunities to teachers who are involved with the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project (PTHVP) in our district. The request was for training to learn more about Arab and African American students. The meetings will be held after school at the DFT office.

Is there anything else you’d like to highlight?

The district established a 3-D community of support staff which consists of ELD Specialists, Instructional Literacy Coaches and Special Education Resource Teachers about five years ago. Three departments (EL & Compensatory Education, Special Education and General Ed) came together with the purpose of serving the needs of all students in our district. Each of the three departments brought a different dimension to the table, hence the name. This year, the team collaborated together to create interactive lessons aligned to the EL Department’s Specially Designed Instructional (SDI) for Newcomer students. A lesson consists of an Oral Language Development opportunity, Phonics and Word Work, a Reading Strategy and a Structured Writing Task. The lessons are made available for teachers to use during the district’s Accelerated Summer Academic Program (ASAP) for immigrant students as well as other summer compensatory education programs. The small group routine lasts about forty-five minutes of direct explicit instruction coupled with students’ engagement.

In addition, if a student receiving EL services with reasonable curriculum adaptations and instructional accommodations does not show adequate progress over time using culturally fair and reliable formative assessments, then the student may be referred for a Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS).

When a referral is made of an English Learner to MTSS, it is highly recommended that the support team includes a Bilingual/ESL certified staff member in the pre-planning, planning and implementation phases of such a process. Data must rule out primary language, EL characteristics, environmental and cultural factors and mobility rates.

It is also critical to examine to what extent the child has had equitable access to the curriculum including best practices in second language acquisition and/or instruction delivered in the child’s native language if necessary.

Any final thoughts?

With all that we have in place, we continue to explore other ways to help students and their families be successful. At Dearborn Schools, we believe that by examining the different access points to what students need and having all the tiered supports in place, we strive to educate the whole child. 


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