Around the world, newly-founded bilingual programs owe much of their success to the sheer willpower of parents. In the United States, a large majority of dual-language programs were created simply because families asked for them or were able to convince the school’s leadership of their advantages. Parents have long been strong advocates for bilingual education and have supported the implementation of dual-language programs with financial contributions, fundraising efforts, and volunteer work. This is not simply an American phenomenon; there are a myriad of international examples of initiatives launched by parents interested in bilingual education for their children, to either acquire a new language or preserve their linguistic heritage. What ties all these movements together is parents’ overwhelming desire and commitment to bestow valuable skills and advantages to their children to help them succeed in an interconnected, global world.
1. KNOWING YOUR POWER
If parents organize well and sustain their determination, even if faced with significant challenges, they can become a force to be reckoned with in public education. They have the potential to create access to bilingual programs for children of diverse socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds. However, as we are all aware, parents are not the only actors involved in educational communities. Therefore, parents must often collaborate with other actors at the school and community levels in order for a successful dual-language program to emerge. It can sometimes be difficult to garner the support of principals, teachers, and administrators who often are not bilingual themselves and are not necessarily knowledgeable about bilingual education. To be blunt, the burden of convincing school administrators and teachers of these programs’ merits often falls on the parents.
2. BUILDING BRIDGES
What often complicates this leverage is that often school authorities can fall short in creating opportunities for community meetings where parents can discuss their thoughts on what specific programs and initiatives the school should implement. These types of gatherings can be extremely fruitful because they reduce the apprehensions that administrators and teachers may have about parent-led initiatives, and boost parent engagement and morale. The excitement, energy, and drive that parents bring to the table can be infectious. Meetings that bridge the gaps between parents and educators can help surmount various obstacles that both may confront when creating a bilingual program (i.e. by hearing from people who have successfully implemented programs of the same kind, or by creating a joint strategy or plan of action). However, in the absence of a receptive school administration, parents can be forced to take alternative and perhaps more confrontational routes in their efforts to create dual-language programs in their local schools. While complaining should always be used as a last resort to launch a dual-language program, it is sometimes the only way to initiate a dialogue with school authorities if the right channels are not in place to welcome and appreciate parent input. It is advised that parents be aware of their bargaining power and their rights, but always try to forge productive and cooperative relationships with other actors in their educational community first.
3. SUSTAINING ONE’S HERITAGE
Parents from diverse backgrounds and ethnic communities can become architects of bilingual educational opportunities that benefit their own heritage community. In New York City, a large majority of families interested in creating new dual-language programs near their homes are motivated by a strong desire to sustain their linguistic heritage that goes beyond a simple desire to develop English skills. Heritage language communities can strengthen the linguistic bonds that unite them by reinforcing and supporting dual-language programs. It is not sufficient to develop and sustain a language at home without oral and written reinforcement at school. Language loss and assimilation into American society occur rapidly, especially in children. Dual-language programs are ideal in that they provide a high percentage of daily instruction in the target language as well as in English, enabling children to improve upon their skills in both languages within an academic context. It is up to parents in heritage communities to ensure that their children receive this kind of education. It is their right and it is well worth fighting for.
4. COUNTERACTING HARMFUL PRACTICES
For heritage language families, there are clear and proven advantages to supporting the academic development of their native language. For instance, if older members of the family, such as grandparents, speak a heritage language, a dual-language program can enable children to develop relationships with them across generational and language gaps. The benefits are even more pronounced for parents who speak languages other than English; dual-language programs allow children to develop deeper connections with their parents by conversing with them at ease in their native language. The problematic phenomenon of language loss is all too common in the United States. Time and time again, immigrant parents feel that they should not speak to their children in their native language because it will keep them from learning English, or are worried that their children’s bilingualism will mark them as the subjects of discrimination. As a result, some families actively choose to speak in broken English to their children instead of speaking their perfectly fluent native language. This practice does not help, but actually hinders, children’s overall linguistic abilities. Dual-language programs work to counteract these harmful practices by providing meaningful instruction in both English and students’ heritage language in an academic setting, as fluency in one language reinforces fluency in the other.
5. CULTIVATING COMMUNITY
Dual-language programs also present a rather unique opportunity to cultivate relationships among diverse groups of people within a community and to bridge traditional identity “barriers”. As children from different linguistic backgrounds, cultures, and perhaps socio-economic statuses interact with each other daily in the classroom, families may eventually form friendships and relationships that cross these seemingly impenetrable boundaries. Furthermore, dual-language programs benefit the whole community by enlisting the help of motivated parents for school-wide causes, enhancing fund-raising capabilities and enriching the school’s extracurricular offerings. Often, neighborhoods with newly established dual-language programs immediately become more desirable after the program launch due to the highly sought-after curriculum. This positively impacts the local economy and quality of life in the neighborhood, and consequently expands the programs themselves.
6. BUILDING SUCCESS
Once established, parents play an immense role in supporting their school’s dual-language program. Dual-language parents can act as ambassadors of their language and culture in their school’s community by organizing cultural enrichment events or after-school activities and classes. It is very important to demonstrate that all the children in the school are being exposed to something of value and that it is not a privilege afforded solely to the students in the dual-language program. In addition, parents can provide much-needed assistance inside and outside of the classroom by reading aloud books to the class, assisting with the acquisition of bilingual classroom materials, cooking a cultural dish for the class to taste, or providing homework assistance for students who do not have a built-in linguistic support system at home, just to name a few ideas. Just as in a monolingual classroom, dual-language parents can volunteer as chaperones for field trips to enrich activities outside of the classroom in multiple languages.
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