Parent connector network/ahas
MAIN SCHOOLWIDE COMMUNICATION EFFORT: THE PARENT CONNECTOR NETWORK
In the cafeteria one morning in fall 2010, Consuelo and Mica were sitting with several parents from the PTA (Maria and others), talking about how to improve schoolwide communication. Consuelo, whose phone was constantly ringing with calls from Spanish-speaking parents with questions and needs (how to get a wheelchair? How to deal with a social service organization? Where to get a public service?) took out a piece of paper and started to draw triangles, linked to other triangles in a pyramid structure. Parents could be links to other parents, she explained, just as she was. In the car together going home, Mica named the role: "Connectors."
We began to share out the basic idea of “parents linking to other parents” with the school council and other school leaders, to see what people thought of it. People immediately liked the idea: many Healey parents often spoke of the need for better translation of information and “inclusion” of immigrant parents but hadn’t been sure how to facilitate it. There were already "room parents" in the magnet program, but these parents primarily had signed on just to email other (disproportionately middle class) parents in their classroom once in a while, about things like parent breakfasts, field-trip chaperones, or school supply needs -- not to explain the more important issues going on at the school.
Importantly, we learned from others that paid Parent Liaisons for each major language in each school had existed previously in Somerville, under a grant. When the grant finished, the Liaisons had ended too. We agreed to see what parent volunteers could do with their bilingual skills – without carrying the burden of paid employees. The Connector project took the idea of “liaisons” and asked parents, as friends, to “liaison” to a few other parents at a time.
POST HERE: FIRST PARENT CONNECTOR DIAGRAM.
IMPLEMENTATION AHA: Lots of parents were very ready to contribute to ongoing communication innovation!
We started brainstorming the components of the Connector project with the principal, at meetings with a "Parent, Student, and Teacher Partnership" working group of parents and teachers at the unifying Healey, and with those parents who came to our Multilingual Coffee Hours. Parents from our first Reading Nights also remained key brainstorming partners.
COMMUNICATION AHA: Especially if there aren’t full time paid parent liaisons, it’s particularly important to figure out how schools hear about and then respond to parents’ ongoing problems and concerns. While asking how schools get info out, we also have to ask how they get input in!
Even as one focus was getting information “out” to all parents, a first question of the Connector project was how the principal would respond to serious complaints coming “in” from parents. This was Consuelo’s concern in particular, since her phone was often ringing with calls from parents with serious needs (e.g., parents seeking advice about how to handle confusing social services agencies and even bewildering arrests). Ironically and frustratingly, weeks later she herself would feel compelled to leave the school after a never-fully-resolved incident in which a white parent yelled at her and other immigrant parents who were using a school space for a parent get-together. In this case, the loop of parent complaint/school response/issue resolution -- a loop affecting every school in the country -- did not go smoothly: the principal’s emails didn’t fully describe his actual efforts to investigate, leaving her uninformed, while she sent a public letter to officials that further challenged a trusting relationship. To all our minds, a lack of a clear communication plan ended up destroying relations of trust in all directions. In particular, we figured, parents with issues had to know that there was a point person to go to and, a point person then responsible for reporting back what was going on. But this “loop” couldn’t overburden any individual -- the principal was already answering streams of parent emails each day!
IMPLEMENTATION AHA/TURNING POINT: Focus on the most-blocked communication first.
For a bit, we wondered: should all parents (including English-speaking parents) have a “Connector”? After Consuelo’s departure, we decided to focus the Connectors first on supporting communication with immigrant parents, who seemed the most blocked from information flow in both directions. And that meant Connectors had to be bilingual.
COMMUNICATION AHA: To build trusting relationships, consider connecting parents to specific groups of other parents -- and when possible, build on the social relationships parents already have!
A related concern was logistical: how would volunteers connect to a reasonably sized group of parents? Should they just post their pictures in the hallway, showing they were willing to take calls at any time from whoever? Knowing that this would make information flow chaotic, we decided to link each Connector by phone to 10 parents who spoke their language.
Starting in winter 2011, we recruited Connectors -- bilingual parents (and one young staff member) who had, over the prior year, shown particular interest in reaching out to immigrant parents or in translating public information so others could access it. We also recruited bilingual parents who had shown some interest in parent-parent events, such as our coffee hour, Reading Night, and public dialogues! Soon, we had Sofia, Lupe, Tona, Angela, Marcia, Maria, and Veronaise (PHOTOS IF POSSIBLE!), all parents, plus Gina, a young staff member and Creole speaker who as it turned out wanted to develop a career as a parent liaison. We used some Ford funding to stipend Gina to help coordinate the project.
As a team of Connectors, we met with each other in one of the school's conference rooms and started using our multilingual coffee hours to get ongoing advising from parents schoolwide. The Parent Connector concept was approved early, in the school's formal unification plan in early spring. But we still had to flesh it out by doing it!
Our goal became to "just start," so we could test ways parents could reach out to other parents. We decided that in particular, we also had to figure out what info we would and would not translate for free, how many school-home communications were necessary a month, how to use existing school channels (robocalls, listserv, backpack handouts) or create new simple tools for parent outreach, and what to do with parent issues that came back “in.”
IMPLEMENTATION AHA: innovation requires experimenting with communication solutions -- in our case, for getting school info “out” and parent input “in.”
Our first parent-parent communication experiment -- to get info “out” and parents themselves “in” to school events -- was a new use for the school’s “robocalls.” As parents, we had received many robocalls for snow closures (!) and school events in the district’s four main languages: typically English, Spanish, Portuguese, then Creole, in that order. (Some of our answering machines still cut the messages off after English!). Somerville’s call-home robocall system, ConnectEd, typically was used by principals who asked Parent Info Center staff to record each translated version. One Connector, Lupe, had suggested we “flip” that typical script in two ways: we’d ask a parent to record a message targeted directly to speakers of a single language. It turned out that ConnectEd could do this and the principal, Jay DeFalco, was excited to try it. So, Lupe, Gina, and Marcia recorded a targeted invitation in Spanish, Creole, and Portuguese in the Healey principal’s office, using his phone. In the robocall, we invited parents to a gettogether to introduce the Connector project before a Healey PTA night. Nearly 30 parents showed up, some saying they had come because they heard Lupe’s voice! We ate food from Somerville’s Maya Sol (pupusas), Fiesta bakery (Haitian patties) and the Panificadora Modelo (Brazilian pastry). Two students from the Mystic Learning Center babysat for parents while they then attended parent-teacher conferences.
COMMUNICATION AHA: Schools need systems for responding efficiently to parent questions as they come up.
In a diverse group of Healey parents and the principal at our next multilingual coffee hour, we shared some information needs immigrant parents had expressed at the PTA Night event (How do I get my child tutoring or help with homework? How do I find scholarships and slots for afterschool? How do I enroll my child in an afterschool sport?) and brainstormed ways Connectors could respond. One goal people shared was to make all parents feel more comfortable approaching school staff themselves to ask questions. But we also knew that parents needed interpreters to approach school staff in the first place and we also knew that parents approaching staff one by one would be an inefficient way of getting basic answers out, a question we would resolve later in the spring with a parent “hotline.”
At the time, we had another core concern: how to avoid a situation where parents mentioned needs to Connectors and never received a response? In xxx (date), we modified a district form for reporting bullying incidents and created this Googleform (LINK TO IT OR SHOW JPEG?) for Connectors (and Connector coordinator/principal) to use to keep tabs on parent calls. We edited it together, adding more detailed information on how to tell parents to request translators. But the system for “input in” still didn’t feel right. For one thing, we realized we were still advising Connectors to tell non English-speaking parents to approach English-speaking staff to share their needs and arrange interpreters!
We were heading toward understanding the need for “systems” for info flow and translation in both directions.
COMMUNICATION AHA: One implementation stumbling block clued us in to a need for a system: better systems are needed to get parents’ contact numbers to other parents! Otherwise, parent partnerships can’t easily happen.
Because our Connector project started mid-year, we had no beginning of the year form that parents felt compelled to fill out, saying “do you want a Connector? Check here to release your number to them!” Only staff were allowed to have all parents’ numbers automatically. So, it took weeks to figure out how to get Parent Connectors other parents’ phone numbers.
We first tried handing out paper permission slips at the PTA Night. They trickled in with signatures: way too time-consuming. So, we asked district Parent Information staff to call all of the parents and get their permission to release their numbers to Parent Connectors. (And we used some Ford funding to stipend them). To facilitate the calls, school staff first tried to figure out how to download a spreadsheet of parents’ numbers for PIC staff from X2, the district’s “student information system.” That took some time. Then the PIC staff had to make the calls home to get parents’ permission to release numbers to the Connectors. Then, finally, Connectors got lists of approved parent numbers and could start calling. A month or more to get parents’ numbers, to other parents!
COMMUNICATION AHA: No wonder why so many people don't put in the effort to reach out to parents! It's real work that takes real time – and at times, money.
Notably, the magnet program had a great directory with parents’ phone numbers, home addresses, and emails in it, collected via paper sign-ups in classrooms when school began. Whenever we raised the issue of getting more parents' numbers to other parents, particularly from immigrant and low income parents, somebody would relate that many working-class parents were afraid of sharing personal phone numbers with other parents because of restraining orders and personal safety fears. This wasn’t totally true: many immigrant and low income parents put down their numbers on signup sheets at Reading Nights or coffee hours. But issues of distrust are understandable: who is willing to share basic personal information with other parents, strangers, especially in an era of ramped-up deportation and legal interventions in households?
But if unaddressed, what do such barriers to parent-parent contact mean? Children unable to be invited to birthday parties or playdates; parents who can’t be invited personally to gettogethers or hear important explanations of school issues; missed opportunities to pull parents together as partners. It’s just a basic tension.
COMMUNICATION AHA: Privacy and trust are key issues to be navigated carefully in broadening school-home communications. But, issues of privacy do mean that at times, it takes much longer for people to partner than they would otherwise.
All this is an important example of the need for infrastructure to normalize communications between school and home. One example is an official form allowing parents to easily offer permission to have a Connector, at the beginning of the year.
COMMUNICATION/IMPLEMENTATION AHA: volunteers need communication infrastructure themselves, in order to make their own work easier. But it can’t be too techy or some volunteers will get turned off!
As we started to link Connectors to parents and make calls, we may have turned off a few Connectors by immediately using technology in our own infrastructure to communicate. For example, at the end of one face-to-face meeting we decided that Connectors might want to “get assigned” parents with whom they had a prior personal relationship, so we chose to use a Google Spreadsheet to divide up the names from home. This cost us several weeks as some confusion reigned: Connectors who had Yahoo accounts rather than gmail accounts couldn't open the Google spreadsheets and for a couple of weeks, didn't know why or ask!
Some Connectors took immediately to using the Google spreadsheet to choose "their" parents and get their numbers, and to take some notes on each call. Other Connectors needed multiple phone calls to get them to come to training sessions on the Google spreadsheet, and some may have turned off to the project thinking that tech savviness was a requirement to participate. (One Connector has her daughter help her get her email; another uses her husband's computer to check her email account. Another checks email regularly but doesn't write back often.). One Connector tried the Google forms and in the end, wanted to use paper and asked Gina to retype her notes. But over time, we've realized what training is needed (how to use a Google spreadsheet!), and, which tech uses aren't really that necessary (possibly, the complex Googleform. This fall, we’ll record parent issues right on the spreadsheet of parent names, until the volume of parent needs increases).
We emailed a lot between Connectors to discuss next steps, and unsurprisingly, such emails linked Connectors who used email for their jobs far more successfully than those who didn't access it routinely (this broke down along class lines, as well). Some Connectors who spoke primarily in Spanish were fine to read long emails in English, but didn’t want to write back in English. Some Connectors themselves required regular phone calls to stay glued to the project. Gina, our youngest member, preferred texts, as well (or a text saying she had an email!). And, we all needed occasional face to face meetings to brainstorm ideas more effectively and to stay interested in the project. Our core fall 2011 plan: a Connector party, with tequila.
IMPLEMENTATION AHA: Go with the form of communication that will reach the most people now. Parents need help with ongoing resource and information questions. Blockages to quick information flow really do mean that children don’t get opportunities.
As we began our calls home, we realized that Connectors were getting asked key resource questions that were time-sensitive (e.g.: can I enroll my child in summer school voluntarily, or does she have to be referred?). So, a key "information loop" became how to get such FAQs answered regularly on public channels when so many parents weren’t regularly on email. At a multilingual coffee hour, we asked people how to get basic information out to a lot of parents at once. Michael Quan (PHOTO) suggested a hotline as an immediate solution. So, rather than wait for everyone to get computer literate or computer access immediately, we decided to make a hotline, to get translated information more easily to all parents. At the same time, we held a couple of “email nights” to try to get more parents email access (see below).
No free or open source hotlines seemed to exist in “plug and play” form, so Seth (PHOTO) prototyped a hotline using open source software and the Twilio API. The goal: create a tool that could let you “press 1 for Spanish,” and leave a message too in that language.
Tona, Maria, and Gina came in to record updates from the principal in Spanish, Portuguese, and Creole, and they also translated answers to parents' Frequently Asked Questions that had been collected by the Connectors. [FIRST SET OF FAQS HERE] They recorded their messages by speaking into Seth’s computer (see photo!). We then honed the hotline over the summer, so that translators can record to it from home.
(PHOTO OF MARIA)
After Seth prototyped the hotline, the question became how to regularly get translated school information, on to it! As piles of paper in backpacks demonstrated, the school had a blast of information heading toward parents at all times, including toward parents willing to translate it. How to triage this info so that there wasn’t an overwhelming amount to translate? The school typically referred most important documents to the PIC for paid translation, and, parents holding events sometimes informally asked other parents to translate info on the magnet program’s listserv or on fliers. But because of the glut of info and the cost and effort of translation, most of the everyday info coming from the school via fliers or from parents via the listserv wasn’t translated.
COMMUNICATION AHA: A key need in public information-sharing is TRIAGING information so it’s not overwhelming. Another is ORGANIZING the information that goes out, so that others can quickly digest it.
In late spring, we came up with the idea of asking volunteer Translators of the Month (also bilingual parents, and maybe, students) to verbally translate information all parents needed to know that month for the Hotline into Haitian Creole, Portuguese, and Spanish. Bilingual parents and staff noted at our coffee hour that translating material into their languages verbally – so, speaking it on to a hotline -- was actually easier than doing it word for word from paper to paper. But if Translators of the Month did put their translations on paper, we figured the same script could go out via other channels (the listserv; in backpacks) and that regardless, the basic info could also be referenced in Connector calls home.
We came up with this infrastructure plan: school leaders would dump information for possible translation onto a Googledoc. Principal and Lead Connector would triage it in a monthly meeting and decide what should be translated for the Hotline and what might require more explanation in a Connector call. Volunteer Translators of the Month would then translate the top priority information for the Hotline. In their monthly calls, Connectors would tell parents the highlights and refer them to the Hotline, along with explaining anything that required more one to one conversation.
We decided that Connectors also needed a standing info page Googledoc with links of local resources, so they knew what to tell parents looking for public services (e.g., legal or family services.) In our Connector calls to date, we had experienced the following incidents, convincing us of the final need for better infrastructure for handling one on one parent needs coming “in”:
- a mom who said she had been trying to set up a meeting with her child’s teacher for a year
- a mom who needed legal advice and then asked the Connector to go with her as an interpreter/ally in an IEP (Special Education services) meeting on her child
We decided that in such cases, we had reached the boundary line of what volunteers could do. Translating IEP information is a paid skill; and scheduling a meeting with a busy teacher could take a Connector hours of back and forth calls. It was time to consider actual paid staff for these aspects of school-parent connection.
COMMUNICATION AHA: a key aspect of effectively using the local resource of bilingualism is creating infrastructure for scheduling interpreters.
As a few Connectors were asked to come be translators at parent-teacher meetings, we also kept hearing ongoing stories from parents who lacked interpretation and translation at the teacher meetings when they most needed it. Figuring out this piece of the infrastructure became another goal. Many parents didn’t know how to request translators for scheduled meetings with teachers (we were told that they were supposed to ask the Vice Principal; the PIC later clarified this LINK TO REGINA’S DOC?). Some educators didn’t know how to find translators to talk in emergencies to parents (Gina herself couldn't find a Spanish speaker one day to explain to a mother her son's injury). At other times, both told us, both parents and educators requested interpreters, but they were not actually present in the final meeting for reasons unknown.
While the District has a list of interpreters to call and also has bilingual staff at the PIC, getting bilingual interpreters to the right place at the right time is the core resource-use problem rather than any lack of bilingualism in the community. Distributing the resource in a cost-effective way is also crucial: one Portuguese-speaking Connector, Maria, suggested based on her experience working in hospitals that the schools try an interpreter "on call" by the phone during certain hours. Parents have recommended that our dashboard family view also have a calendar at its end, helping parents schedule meetings with teachers themselves!
(other details of using human resources effectively for translation and interpretation: interpreters at public meetings need to announce their availability in audible ways! And, if interpreters go to PTA Night to interpret the big meetings, they also need to be on call for impromptu one on one meetings throughout the night between parents and teachers (the Healey principal had interpreters use walkie-talkies for this purpose!)
We decided that in each call home, Connectors would also ask parents if they had individual questions or personal needs, and put those on the Google spreadsheet. And, we decided that if parents needed personal meetings with teachers or others, Connectors would get some of parents’ preferred meeting times and then pass the scheduling to staff via email (cc’ing parent). That required -- paid staff.
COMMUNICATION AHA: Creating “infrastructure” for interpretation and translation requires figuring out who to pay for what. Our final aha of the year was that in the end, volunteer Connectors could connect parents in to staff but that ongoing communication about meeting serious parent needs then had to be taken up by paid staff. In our case, we isolated an aspect of the infrastructure that parents couldn’t cover and argued that a bilingual staff member be employed part-time to cover it.
We pressed for a part-time Parent Liaison slot at 10 hrs/week. We reasoned that volunteers shouldn't be asked to ensure that parents get Special Education services for their kids or legal assistance for their families; paid staff in any district should be on top of such “case management.” So, the task for the coming fall will be to figure out how and whether a very part-time liaison role fits the need, if volunteers help get info out and input in.
Turlock Unified School District in California has a model where parents are trained and paid as professional interpreters and translators. Somerville’s Welcome Project already trains young people this way in their LIPS program, to translate at public events (http://www.welcomeproject.org/content/liaison-interpreters-program-somerville-lips).
In June 2011, we had finished this full list of components of the "infrastructure" for low-cost translation and interpretation in a school. The Parent Connector Network is one of the key "components" -- it's connection, human-style! We now hope to join brainstorming forces with a parent group from Somerville's Welcome Project (housed in the Mystic Housing Development down the hill from the Healey school) that also wants to focus on translation and interpretation in Somerville (one mom in the group is also a Connector).
POST HERE: FINAL CONNECTOR INFRASTRUCTURE DIAGRAM.
Hear some words here from our Connectors: (VIDEO INTERVIEW WITH TONA OR GINA or MARIA?)
P.S. NEXT STEPS:
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 is 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. Now that the school’s programs have merged and the 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!
In Winter 2011, we attempted to hold a "get an Email" night at the Healey, but it wasn't well attended; this crucial puzzle piece needs further development and is one focus for fall. Ironically, if there isn't a good multilingual communication infrastructure, it's hard to get people out for any face to face email training event! This is what we mean when we say each infrastructure “component” is connected – and has to be fueled by an overall commitment to including all parents. Combining the Connector network with email training by the PTA may be a good solution, especially as the school goes from having a listserv only for the magnet program to a listserv for all. Especially in a community where there are many community-oriented technologists, there's really no reason why everyone eventually shouldn't have basic tech skills. And why not employ PTA parent-power for email training too? See Computer Infrastructure.