Transformational Parent Engagement: AmeriCorps VISTA Lee Begelman’s work with immigrant communities at Southwark School

Posted by on April 29, 2016

By Caitlin Fritz

A key component of building a community school is involving parents in planning and decision-making processes. “What does authentic parent engagement really look like?” is a question asked not only by those advocating for community schools in Philadelphia, but also by the School Reform Commission, who in early March held an open forum on family and community advisory groups, commonly known as School Advisory Councils (SACs). Representatives from the School District of Philadelphia and volunteers facilitated discussions to gather feedback about what it takes to create an active and engaged advisory group at every school. As a volunteer note-taker, I was able to engage in a dynamic discussion with principals, parents, district employees and concerned community members about strategies for structuring and implementing successful parent and community advisory groups.

The meeting also included a panel discussion featuring parents, community members, and Principal Andrew Lukov of Southwark School (located at 9th and Mifflin Streets in South Philadelphia). Principal Lukov was asked why one should go through the effort to put together a school advisory group. In his response, he stressed the necessity for school leadership to understand the importance of family and community engagement, because it helps to create a sense of collaboration and consensus and, especially in times of limited resources, helps to guide school priorities. He went on to discuss the Southwark community, which includes diverse cultural and immigrant groups that bring unique contributions to the school. By including these voices, the advisory group can be a powerful tool that helps to make family and community engagement more well-rounded and authentic.

After the meeting I was left with a deep impression of the important roles families play as not only supports for their own child’s learning but as integral parts of the life of the school overall. It was also made clear that in order to engage families in a meaningful way, the voices in a school advisory group should be reflective of the unique cultural make-up of each school community. My question became, how can schools go about forming these groups in a multicultural city whose neighborhoods each have a unique identity? How can one effectively involve families of various cultural backgrounds in a way that is genuine and inclusive of different traditions and languages? In order to explore these questions, I visited Southwark School to speak with Lee Begelman, a PHENND AmeriCorps VISTA serving as the school’s Community Partnerships Coordinator, to find out what parent engagement looks like in a diverse school setting.

Caitlin: Can you tell us about the work you are doing around parent engagement at Southwark?

Lee: I am currently working with Principal Lukov to develop a five-year plan for how to authentically engage parents and families at the school. Our vision is to create the mechanisms that will allow an active, engaged, and empowered parent advisory group to be successful. We want Southwark School to not be an isolated silo, but instead a wide-open learning and community space, and parents play an integral part in this.

Caitlin: Can you tell us a little more about the Southwark Community?

Lee: Southwark is a diverse community that includes many newly immigrated to the United States, who speak many different languages, including Burmese, Nepali, Chinese, Spanish, and Indonesian to name a few. Many of the families are engaging with the American public education system for the first time, which can be intimidating and difficult to navigate. At Southwark we are working to make it easier for parents to interact with the school. We want to honor and celebrate our vastly diverse community and the many contributions they bring to our school.

Caitlin: How are you specifically working with parents that are non-native English speakers?

Lee: I started organizing informal coffee hour conversations in the morning after drop off with parents of each language group and with help from our Bilingual Counseling Assistants (BACs). I share information from the SAC meetings and engage in discussions about the school’s vision. The many parents who attend appreciate being involved, and tell me that the coffee hours create a space at the school where they feel welcome.

Over time, we hope we can develop an efficient system that incorporates representatives from these various parent language groups on the SAC. These representatives can then bring back information from the SAC meetings to the small parent language groups. In this way information from the SAC can be effectively communicated out and into the community, building a school culture that values the diverse voices that are part of this school.

Caitlin: Based on your work at Southwark, how can community and university partnerships help in parent engagement efforts, especially in working with parents and families from diverse cultural backgrounds?

Lee: At Southwark, community partnerships have really helped with recruiting parents to participate in our coffee hour conversations. We have been able to utilize relationships that community organizations have developed with parents, such as Puentes de Salud, a health and wellness center for the South Philadelphia Latino Immigrant Community. We are also working with our partners to support families with other resources, such as English language classes, but support can go beyond language skills. Interns from Thomas Jefferson University visit our school and help to engage parents through counseling sessions. This is something we are really excited about as we moves towards a community school strategy, where we can offer mental health services in the school, not only to students but to parents as well.

I envision an array of different types of parent workshops, such as tax assistance and financial literacy, or family nights where parents can learn new ways to engage their children, such as a robotics. Another idea are cultural heritage nights, where everyone has the opportunity to learn about the history of the cultures represented at our school. Community organizations and colleges/universities can leverage their resources and expertise to empower our families with new skills that will not only improve their quality of life but also improve the learning opportunities of our students.

Caitlin: What are some of the challenges you are encountering in your work engaging parents from different backgrounds?

Lee: I did not grow up in the Southwark neighborhood, so being an outsider can be a challenge. I’ve spent a lot of time learning about the various cultures represented in this neighborhood. I’ve learned that in many countries the expectations for parent involvement in schooling is very different than here in the United States. In some cultures there is a wall between the family and the school, and parents are expected to drop off their children and leave. The work I am doing is getting parents from different cultural backgrounds to feel more comfortable interacting with the school and school personnel. Hosting informal coffee hours where parents can speak freely in their native languages has helped to overcome not only language barriers, but some of the also cultural barriers to parent engagement. As a result, parents are more likely to volunteer at the school, participate in parent-teacher conferences, and hopefully become involved in the SAC.

This is definitely something that takes time, and I think it can be sometimes difficult to really grasp what the long-term impact of this work will be, especially as my VISTA position is only for one-year. My hope is that by the end I will have developed the layout for a sustainable system that intentionally engages parents from all the various cultures represented at Southwark.

Southwark School is in its second year of a three-year VISTA project through PHENND. Lee will finish his year of service with VISTA this summer, but before he leaves he plans to continue to develop the democratic infrastructure that will lay the groundwork for future parent engagement strategies.

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