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Overview and key findings: Schoolwide toolkit/parent connector network

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Written by Mica Pollock, Jedd Cohen, Tona Delmonico, Gina d'Haiti, and Ana Maria Nieto for the Parent Connector project, with input from parents across the Healey School (particularly Consuelo Perez, Lupe Ojeda, Sofia Perez, Maria Carvalho, Ivanete Calmon, Veronaise Chaiki, Will Thalheimer, and Tracy and Dave Sullivan).

Click here for the <font color="#0000FF">Summary</font> on this project; click here for the <font color="#0000FF">Expanded story</font> on this project.

Maria, Connector to Portuguese-speaking parents, and Seth, local technologist, working together on a hotline recording

Communication we hoped to improve

What aspect of existing communication did we try to improve, so that more people in Somerville could collaborate in young people's success? How’d it go?

(Who was involved in the project and how was time together spent? What did the project accomplish?)

At Somerville’s Healey School (K-8), as in many U.S. schools, parents hail from across the globe and speak many languages. Language barriers keep parents from being equally informed about school issues, events, and even educational opportunities. So do disparities in tech access, tech training, and time -- as well as gaps in personal relationship and connections. Lots of people at the Healey talked about needing better school-home and parent-parent communication, particularly to fully include immigrant families, families without computer access/knowledge, families with low literacy skills, and families who couldn’t or didn’t show up often in person at the school.

So, we operated from a central principle already core to the Healey School: a child can’t be educated as effectively if parents aren’t included as key partners in the project. So, schools should ensure access to school information and pull all parents into dialogue about improving their children’s school experience. Info out, input in.

The Healey School enrolls a full U.S. range of families with different communication habits and needs. Some email the principal and Superintendent regularly. Some parents have no computers and no internet. A listserv has long enrolled only some. Robocalls home go in four languages; handouts home often don't. For many, parent teacher conferences require interpreters, and accessing those interpreters itself is a structural communication need, in part because many of the parents who need interpretation are incredibly busy - sometimes working multiple jobs. One Portuguese-speaking dad worked such long hours he didn't even have time to come to school to post a sign saying he wanted to find and pay another parent to help him drive his daughter to school. In addition, efforts to make an appointment can also get lost in the crush of meeting student needs: One Spanish-speaking parent told us she’d tried a number of times throughout the year, unsuccessfully, to meet with her child’s teacher in person.

In contrast, some families, particularly English-speaking families, volunteer many hours in classrooms during the school day and so get regular access to their child’s teacher. Many such families also are on committees that meet after school and so, take the opportunity then to contribute ideas to the school. Over the years, we saw that families who saw each other regularly at face to face school events also made friends, joined listservs, signed up in directories, and showed up at next events.

As we describe below and in the <font color="#0000FF">Expanded story</font> , we first worked on several strategies to support diverse parents to share ideas and information (Reading Nights, Parent Issue Dialogues). Then, we focused on the challenge of multilingual communication, because language barriers particularly have excluded many Healey parents from full participation. The Multilingual Coffee Hour, begun in 2009, was our first explicitly multilingual effort. Then, in 2010-11, the Parent Connector Network has focused fully on reaching out to parents who speak the district's three main languages other than English: Spanish, Portuguese, and Haitian Creole. We've also been working to build personal relationships between bilingual parents and recent immigrant parents, in order to bring more voices into school debates and more people into school events and leadership -- as well as help the school respond more quickly to parent needs.

Begun in Winter 2010, the Parent Connector Network is now run by between parents and community members, in partnership with school administrators and staff and with the blessing of District administration. The Connector Network supports translation and parent-school relationships, by connecting bilingual parents (“Connectors”) to more recently immigrated parents face-to-face, and via a hone tree and multilingual hotline.

Beginning in spring 2012, Connectors are starting to use a multilingual call-in hotline (which our MIT friend Leo Burd made for us with open source software) to share out school information, to help ensure that information reaches English language-learning families and families with fewer tech and literacy skills. As Connector relationships and incoming parent requests and ideas grow over the course of the project, Connectors may use Google forms to gather and prioritize school information. (Google forms are simple online forms that allow multiple people to input information.) So far, Connectors have been able to handle parent needs by simply relaying requests and issues to appropriate staff and summarizing information that has been sent out on the school listserv.

We are currently working with 5 Spanish-speaking Connectors, and 1 Portuguese-speaking, 1 French-speaking (for Haitian Creole=-speaking families), and 1 Hindi-speaking Parent Connector. Each Connector is asked to call 3 - 5 other families once a month to share key information from the principal/school and to ask questions about any issues parents are facing. The Connectors are also on-call to parents during the school year to help them find answers to both general and specific questions or concerns they may have about their child’s school. (One Connector also got calls last summer (2011) -- about summer school enrollment and about how to reach the district’s Parent Information Center to enroll a new cousin in a school.)

We are also now testing a strategy of having volunteer Connectors wear "badges" as informal interpreters or contacts available to any school parent at the beginning of some school days, to enable more parent-parent connections and "on demand" interpretation for early morning conversations with staff.

Connectors also are starting to act as volunteer “Translators of the Month” for each main language group, helping to translate a monthly set of school information for our Healey Hotline. This translated material can then be used for other school media (listserv, handouts, flyers, etc.). These Translators won't translate the official information the school or district is legally required to make accessible to all parents. (Civil rights law requires that all parents have an equal opportunity to access important school information; some such information involves specialized lingo and definitely requires formally trained professionals.) But so far, volunteers are willing to help produce an additional stream of translated material for the school.

In fall 2011, we also successfully argued for creating a part-time liaison role (five hours per week paid by the school) for staff already employed by the school to support the Connector Network. The liaison role provides a range of crucial supports for the network that a school employee is best positioned to do. For example, the liaison can help summarize school information for translation by the translators of the month, summarize parent needs for the administration, recruit new parents at in-school events, and respond appropriately to serious or ongoing parent needs -- beyond what a volunteer parent can or should do. The role requires not only a strong connection to local immigrant communities but skills in tracking and managing multiple relationships and projects simultaneously. Several staff members tried the role, and one particularly willing staff member volunteered her time.

The role is currently distributed across the volunteer staff member, several parent leaders, and a OneVille community staff coordinator. Our ultimate goal is to transfer these responsibilities away from OneVille paid staff and fully onto staff and parent leadership, and we're spending the spring 2012 semester building the staff skills to do this, supporting parent leadership, and piloting the full combination of multilingual hotline, connectors, and parent liaison work.

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Our work, and our ¡Ahas!

What was the basic groundwork needed to support the current work? How did the project change and grow over time? At this point, what are our main ¡Ahas! about improving communications in public education? What communication and implementation ¡Ahas! and turning points did we have over time?

Work informing the Parent Connector Network began in a 2009-10 series of Reading Nights and Parent Dialogues, and a Multilingual Coffee Hour that continued in 2010-11 as part of the Parent Connector Network infrastructure. We learned a huge amount in that work and we built relationships that enabled the development of the Parent Connector Network. Click here for the full backstory!

As a multilingual group of parents and staff (a few of whom speak only English), it has taken us two years to fully understand:

1) The barriers in the way of adult English learners' participation in English-dominant schools;

2) The sort of systemic communication "infrastructure" necessary to include more immigrant parents as partners in the project of supporting young people;

3) How to find and recruit people with the skills needed to implement the infrastructure, and how a volunteer-based project can delegate responsibility across available community members (and, stipend key people for leadership roles.)

Some main ¡Ahas! over time have been these:

¡Aha! In a multilingual school and district in particular, local bilingualism is a key resource for strengthening communications and relationships between families and educators. The key is tapping local bilingualism in strategic ways.

¡Aha! Overall, we’ve learned that committed and diverse parents can be expert innovators of communication infrastructure for including all parents because they have a full understanding of communication barriers.

¡Aha! To fully engage all parents in a multilingual and diverse school, each effort to engage parents requires multiple efforts to make communication fully inclusive. Barriers to full inclusion exist every step of the way. So, we have come to think in terms of creating a full "infrastructure" for schoolwide communication (and low-cost translation and interpretation in particular) in a school. For example, to reach parents across tech access barriers, a Reading Night linking four kindergarten classrooms required advertising the event not only using the school's listserv, but also via paper handouts and displays on the kindergarten hallway's wall. Including all parents during the event also required actively tapping parents' own bilingualism, by engaging parents in translating conversation in multilingual groups. To get parents to a Multilingual Coffee Hour or PTA Night event, we needed to learn how to record multilingual invitation messages on the school's "robocall" system; then, we had to experiment with which recorded voices made the event seem most appealing to parents. We also experimented with recording targeted robocalls to one language group at a time, instead of recording all four at once. This was because on parents' home answering machines, robocalls often cut off after the first two languages -- and because Portuguese and Haitian Creole translations were always last after English and Spanish, those languages often didn't get heard.

Before we started working on the Parent Connector Network in Winter 2011, we worked with families and teachers in other efforts to improve parent-school and parent-parent connections. Most of all, we had to build relationships across parents and staff who cared deeply about including everyone. These friends became key partners in innovation.

Communication and implementation ¡Ahas!, and turning points!

We had many ¡Ahas! in sequence on this project over two years. To read the full story of the efforts that gave us these ¡Ahas!, click here!

Additional ¡Aha!s about schoolwide communication included the following.


Running up the Healey stairs to a Reading Night
Consuelo, mastermind of the Multilingual Coffee Hour, and her OneVille pizza: our best Reading Night advertisement

Reading Night was about building initial relationships and friendships between parents and parents as much as it was about sharing reading tips. These relationships became crucial to all of the work we did at the Healey over the next two years.


The Multilingual Coffee Hour started in 2010-11 and then became a key piece of the Parent Connector Network infrastructure the following year. We realized:

¡Aha! Making parent gatherings explicitly multilingual encourages speakers of languages other than English to ask questions and offer opinions. In addition, multilingual events -- events where people take the time to translate for one another and, encourage others to speak in their own language -- also help parents and staff appreciate their peers' language talents.

Dave, multilingual coffee hour enthusiast and 2011 PTA president


In 2010-11, several Parent-Parent Issue Dialogues helped a number of Healey parents debate a fundamental and controversial issue about their school's future: integrating several historically separate student programs. We realized the following in these efforts:

¡Aha! Many parents have few or no opportunities to talk to each other or to decisionmakers in organized settings, about major issues in their school. This means that their ideas and energy for improvement go untapped. Parents with tech access and knowledge (e.g., parents on a school listserv), and English speakers, are often far better informed and included in such debates.

*TURNING POINT: With the Healey in the midst of integrating several historically separated programs, parents focused for 2010-11 and then 11-12 on improving infrastructure for schoolwide communication -- and particularly, on including immigrant parents in the loop of school information and input. We designed the Parent Connector Network.
*TURNING POINT: Focus on the most-blocked communication first. In this case, after trying a number of efforts to include all parents at the school, we focused on addressing the language barriers making communication particularly difficult.


In addition to the main ¡Ahas!above, we realized the following:

¡Aha! Innovation requires experimenting with communication solutions, even if strategies aren't guaranteed to work. In our case, we tested a number of solutions for getting school info “out” and parent input “in” across boundaries of language.

¡Aha! While asking how schools get info out, we also have to ask how they get input in. How do schools hear about and then respond to parents’ ongoing problems and concerns?

¡Aha! School-home communication relies in part on parents building relationships and connections with other parents. Parents said they came to PTA night or other such school events because someone they knew invited them, i.e., "Come to this event, and I'll be there to support you." Tech tools like phones, hotlines, or listservs can amplify and extend that ultimate resource for parent-parent connection: relationship-building.

¡Aha! Creating “infrastructure” that makes interpretation and translation more efficient requires figuring out who to pay for what. The people who share a school can, will, and should volunteer their time to help the school and other families communicate. But only up to a certain point. When workload is too heavy or when professional skills are necessary -- and, to embed the project into the core work of the school -- projects need to pay staff whose job it is to help include all parents. For example, communication on individual parents’ serious personal needs will have to be covered by paid staff, freeing volunteers to be friends, info-sharers and links TO paid staff. But making translation mechanisms more efficient (e.g., trying a hotline to get info to many parents at once; triaging info to be translated on the hotline) can save staff time that otherwise is spent explaining things repeatedly.

We've also gleaned some very practical lessons about how to implement our infrastructure:

  • Bilingual volunteers need to reach out to parents with a specific offer or request, rather than a generic offer "to help."
  • In order to engage ELL families in schools, a focus on traditional school activities, i.e., Parent-Teacher conferences, needs to be complemented by the creation of school activities that celebrate these families and their cultures, e.g., a monthly Multilingual Coffee Hour, or an International Week that incorporates activities in the classroom and after school.
  • Parent availability changes, so it's important to develop a recruitment pipeline for volunteer bilingual parents that starts early. In addition to doing outreach and holding multicultural events at the beginning of the school year, when parents' hopes and energy are high, recruitment can also target parents whose children are in kindergarten, help the families become acclimated, and eventually tap them as leaders.

Our products: Concrete communication improvements and next steps

We are proud to say that the Parent Connector vision and project is now part of the Healey School's school site plan. We have a core of volunteer Connectors reach parents in-person and via phone, lead Connectors in Spanish and Portuguese, and two current/former HGSE graduate students, Jedd Cohen and Ana Nieto, working as coordinators to support the effort while it solidifies. 2011-12 principal, Purnima Vadhera, worked with us to submit a contract to Human Resources for the five hrs/week liaison position to handle parent needs forwarded by the Connectors -- and to oversee the multilingual communication process we’ve come up with. While we waited for the liaison position to be approved, we filled in the gap by combining Jedd and Ana's efforts with that of a bilingual staff member, Adriana Guereque, who volunteered her time tofollow up on individual family needs, and a very engaged Healey mom, Laura Pitone, who triaged monthly information and ensured that the district translated it.



In sum, this year we piloted the full infrastructure we developed for multilingual communication. We:

a) piloted our Parent Connector Network, in which bilingual parents make monthly contact with immigrant and low-income families to get information to and input from them; Connectors also invite parents to our Multilingual Coffee hours and to the hotline.
b) tested a model where a Parent Liaison and Lead Parent Connectors develop and implement the details of face-to-face and phone-based outreach, follow up on specific parent needs, and help parents access interpretation;
c) piloted use of our open source hotline, on which parent “Translators of the Month” translate and record information about events, issues, and opportunities;
d) began teaming up with parent leaders and local community organizations to explore offering computer, internet, and email listserv training to parents.

Leo Burd, a new friend from MIT's Center for Civic Media, is finishing an improved version of our hotline so that Translators of the Month can easily upload updates. From the new schoolwide listserv, we're gleaning information for Translators to translate onto the hotline. We’re also creating a Googledoc of basic contact info/citywide parent services info that Connectors can become familiar with and feel comfortable accessing. We’ve helped the principal make a fall parent communication form that will help parents sign up to get a Connector, make it easier to get parents’ phone numbers, and allow parents to record their preferences for contact (texting? school listserv? classroom listserv?) and indicate whether they want email training. We’re also teaming up with PTA leaders and local tech training organizations, to explore ways local orgs can offer email/listserv training to parents to address this key barrier to schoolwide communication.


Together, the Connectors (with advice from many other parents and staff consulted over the two years) fleshed out a list of components of the necessary “infrastructure” for multilingual communication. The Connectors themselves have become seen as a key local resource, as people willing to be on call to answer other parents' questions in their language and to (monthly) share information that requires more explanation.

By late January, 2012, we began to feel that phone calls pairing Connectors to a subset of families weren't enough. The Connector Network had grown to a total of nine bilingual Connectors paired with dozens of families for phone calls "out," but parents weren't asking much of their Connectors, and putting effort into getting parents to school-based events started to seem less profitable than perhaps scheduling events where parents themselves already were. Parent Connectors met together to brainstorm next steps on information-sharing and relationship-building:

TURNING POINT: with the multilingual hotline ready to pilot, we decided to rely on the hotline, rather than phone calls home, to provide families with basic multilingual information updates. We’re confident that we can find three connectors each month to translate the info update into three languages and record it on the hotline. The Connectors will begin to call families simply to let them know the hotline is a resource, and we’ll reinforce this message through flyers around school and, possibly, text message sent out via the school’s automatic messaging system.

TURNING POINT: We’re now complementing the multilingual hotline tool with a deepened focus on face-to-face, rather than phone-to-phone connection. The Connectors have brainstormed several sites of rich communication in daily school life to build on:

  • To explore these face-to-face connections, we found it useful to stipend three connectors to spend additional hours before and after school. Often, ELL parents are waiting during this time to ask questions of a single bilingual staff member.
  • Parents also find that communication about their child’s classroom, rather than about the whole school, is much more engaging and rewarding. So next year, Connectors will begin to pair up with grade level teams or even with particular "classroom parents" to share classroom information with families in their child's class or grade.
  • Next year, Connectors plan to hold monthly multilingual coffee hours outside of the school, at places where parents already gather -- e.g., at the Portuguese Club, the Haitian Coalition, or the Mystic Housing Project.

We're pleased to announce that next year the Healey School will have a part-time parent liaison to manage volunteers, reach out to ELL families, and oversee a new Welcome Center, designed to provide a welcoming space at the Healey to all families. We're working with the incoming Principal, Jill Geiser, to build on our insights from the Connectors work as she designs the responsibilities of this new position.

Overall, we’ve been exploring a cost-effective hybrid of volunteer efforts to connect parents to other parents and “infrastructure” that includes paid school staff. As mentioned above, a key issue we addressed in the Parent Connector Project was the line between translation/interpretation that bilingual parents can and will do as volunteers to serve their community, and when the district has to pay professionals. A parent in a federally funded district has a civil right to translation and interpretation if she needs it to access important parent information (including at parent-teacher conferences). But all districts are strapped for money and bilingual skills are true community resources. How to tap those resources without overtaxing volunteers, and without asking volunteers to do the sort of work that really should be done by paid professionals?

In our case, we isolated an aspect of the infrastructure that volunteers couldn’t cover and argued that a bilingual staff member be employed part-time to cover it. We reasoned that volunteers shouldn't be asked to ensure that parents get Special Education services for their children or be responsible for requesting paid interpreters from the district. Paid staff in any district should be on top of such “case management.” But volunteers may be able to do something no staff member can do so easily: build friendships that glue people together as partners in student success. So, the task for this spring has been to organize Connectors to reach out in this way and staff to point out new ELL parents to support.

Further, in a multilingual community where not everyone uses computers, some lack access to information because of translation gaps and some because of a gap in basic tech knowledge. We learned early on in our work in Somerville that the problem for parents was often not necessarily one of computer access (the nearby housing project has many computers) as much as one of training. Even English-speaking parents in the school’s magnet program didn't know how to get on its listserv; many parents didn't know how to use a computer's basic functions. Now that the school’s programs have merged and the Healey school is creating a schoolwide listerv, these issues will rise to the fore. And having people equally speak up on the common listserv, in whatever language, will be the next frontier of parent inclusion.

Questions to Ask Yourself if You’re Tackling Similar Things Where You Live

What big issues would we recommend others think about in their own attempts to improve communications in public schools? Contact us to talk more!

Consider the current and needed schoolwide communication infrastructure at your school:

➢ Can everyone who needs to get and share important school information, get and share it?
➢ Where do you put school information so that everyone in the school can see it?
➢ How do you share parent ideas around the school?
➢ What system do you have for translation and interpretation, in particular?
➢ How can you tap local bilingualism, either paying people to translate material or organizing bilingual volunteers to pitch in on translation and interpretation in a way that doesn't take too much of their time?
➢ How can you build on parent-parent relationships to pull all parents into school events and conversation?
➢ What tech training do parents need in order to get information? How could you help all parents get this training?
➢ Which efforts at parent information should be a task for school staff rather than volunteers?

Technological how-tos

Here's where we describe "how to" use every tool we used, so that others could do the same. We also describe "how to" make every tool we made!

We’re using a Googledoc as one organized place for a list of resources relevant to Somerville's immigrant families. See for instructions on starting a Googledoc. (Note: to use googledocs, users sometimes have to get gmail accounts.)

We use Editgrid for secure lists of approved parent contact info. See for instructions on starting and using Editgrid's spreadsheets. (At this time of this writing, Google spreadsheets don't allow sorting by any column, whereas Editgrid spreadsheets do.)

We used Google Translate for some first-pass translations, but bilingual parents still had to correct the translations. See for tips on using Google Translate.

We’ve experimented with robocalls home, using Connect-Ed, the district’s existing system for sending calls to many families at once.

As described in the <font color="#0000FF">Expanded story</font>, in our case, we targeted robocalls to one language group at a time instead of recording all four at once, because robocalls often cut off after the first two languages (and because Portuguese and Haitian Creole were always last). We also asked Connectors to record some robocalls in their friendly parent voices, which drew some parents to PTA night!

In spring 2011, we were still recording voices or saving audio files onto Seth's computer -- see photo of Maria and Seth above. At that point, Leo Burd from the Center for Civic Media then made the full version that we are piloting in 2011-12. (Here's Leo talking about his VOIPDrupal software: See here for Leo's explanations of the programming [[here].

Click here for the <font color="#0000FF">Summary</font> on this project; click here for the <font color="#0000FF">Expanded story</font> on this project.