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Helping New Arrivals Help their Children

Parent Academy Assists Non-English Speakers


New Meadowlawn Elementary School Principal Tim Hargis recognizes the traits of dedication and perseverance in his English-language learner families, and sees how hard parents work to help their children be successful.

The school is home to the district’s elementary Newcomer Center Program for students who are brand new to the United States. There are currently 20 children in the program. Many other students schoolwide are ELL, with varying levels of English.

“On the first registration day I was touched with the ELL parents that were here, and the enormous responsibility that they had to get their kiddos registered and in school, especially when they are up against language challenges,” Hargis said. “I was so impressed with their patience and their determination and their kindness. I know they know the importance of education for their kids.”

Van Poih and her child wait at dismissal at Meadowlawn

Parents at Meadowlawn and districtwide will soon have the opportunity to better navigate their children’s educational journey and life in the U.S. In Kentwood Public Schools, students speak more than 60 languages and represent 90 countries; about 1,800 are English-language learners.

The district received a $110,000 grant from the Steelcase Foundation spread, over two years, to fund the KPS Parent Academy for non-English-speaking parents of ELL students. The goal is to remove barriers immigrant families face, share knowledge of local resources, and how things like banking and local government work, said Superintendent Michael Zoerhoff.

“A lot of our ELL students and immigrants came here for a better life, very similar to … when our ancestors came here for a better life,” Zoerhoff said. “They are here for all the right reasons. They work hard but maybe need some help navigating through this world we live in.”

Educators try to bridge the disconnect between work and home life for ELL students. “Our goal is to always create positive citizens successful in the workplace, to really create change-the-world-type citizens,” Zoerhoff said.

Academy Involves Partnerships

Beginning in September, focus groups of community leaders will explore topics to benefit parents. Planning will continue in October until the first six-week series of workshops launches in November. Series will be offered three times annually with class sizes starting with 20 participants. The plan is for business and community leaders to lead workshops in their area of expertise.

“The schools, the business communities and the faith community in Kentwood are all working together to build this wonderful melting pot that we are proud of, and to make our community even stronger,” Zoerhoff said.

Topics could include the English language, school procedures, study skills, banking, store shopping, Internet use, obtaining a driver’s license, pursuing citizenship, using public transportation and applying for a job.

“The Parent Academy is another wonderful example of what makes our city so special,” said Kentwood Mayor Steve Kepley, who plans to volunteer at workshops. “Kentwood is a diverse community, home to many hard-working families, and I’m excited to see this program take off. My wife and I are heavily engaged in supporting people that come from all parts of the world.

“I’m pleased that Steelcase, a Kentwood business, is helping our public school promote this cause through its generous donation,” Kepley added. “The Parent Academy will help foster better relationships for children, parents and school staff. It’s exciting when our entire community comes together to help our children succeed.”

The goal is to improve educational outcomes of ELL students, which will be measured through improved the state World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA) scores, disciplinary reports, and attendance.

‘A lot of our ELL students and immigrants came here for a better life … They are here for all the right reasons.’ — Superintendent Michael Zoerhoff

Outcomes of ELL students whose parents participate will be compared with a similar group of ELL students whose parents do not participate, Zoerhoff said.

Mo Nung, from Burma, waits with her toddler for her fifth-grader to be dismissed at Meadowlawn Elementary School

‘You Are Valued’

The national political climate makes the timing of the academy’s launch even more important. There will be an extra focus on making sure families feel safe, Zoerhoff said. “It sends a message to our people that you are still valued here. What’s going on in the country has not changed what we do.”

At Kentwood, ELL students make remarkable progress toward English proficiency, but often struggle to keep up with their age-peers in the regular classroom. Parents also struggle with English, which makes completing homework difficult, Zoerhoff said. Many students serve as translators for their parents, mentors for siblings and have to work to help the household.

“If we can help our parents,” Zoerhoff said, “that can only help our kids be more successful in school.”

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SNN Article on Newcomers Program

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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