Multi-lingual families and parents in King and Snohomish counties have come together to become members of the Natural Leaders Team program sponsored by the Washington Alliance for Better Schools.
Natural Leaders are trained to connect with refugee and immigrant parents, "providing them with the resources they need to help students be successful at school." says Jonelle Adams, Executive Director of the Washington Alliance for Better Schools.
Parents are encouraged to check homework and provide feedback to teachers. This high level of family engagement is important for providing students with the best learning environment possible. The families are also invited to share their ideas and cultures with others.
"Natural Leaders have become bridge builders within their communities," said Adams.
Funded by the Readiness to Learn grant, the program was founded in 2003 to prevent language from becoming an obstacle to family involvement in student education.
Sixty-five Natural Leaders support about 20 schools in Shoreline, Northshore, Edmonds Everett Mukilteo and Kent school districts. The schools have taken steps to show parents respect by providing multiple translations of school publications, hosting social events and making phone calls to connect with parents about their questions or concerns about school.
Schools that support Natural Leaders are seeing WASL scores rise. In 2007, 64 to 80 percent of students passed the state tests compared with 46 to 51 percent in 2003. During this time, each school saw an 8 to 36 percent increase in the number of English Language Learner students.
Spanish, Russian, Korean, Punjabi and Somali are some of the languages spoken by the Natural Leaders. Adams says families whose voices once went unheard now have the opportunity to voice their opinions about how to help students succeed.
In 2007, new immigrant families from the Northshore school district were interviewed to assess the program’s level of success. The response was overwhelmingly positive. Families felt the Natural Leaders Team welcomed them to the school and did their best to help meet their needs.
During the interview, families had an opportunity to share their suggestions. Parents wanted to be called if a student was absent and felt college information needed to be more accessible and workshops given in their language to help navigate the application processs.
To ensure the resource is available to everyone, Natural Leaders Teams try to be visible around schools when parents are picking up or dropping off their children. Information is also posted on bulletin boards at school, and parents are sometimes referred by counselors or family advocates.
The Natural Leaders are working to sustain the program so that it can continue even after grant funding ends in June 2009 Experienced Natural Leaders serve as the trainers for newly recruited Natural Leaders. At these training sessions, Natural Leaders are shown how to identify the talents of families and build relationships while being mindful of cultural differences, boundaries and confidentiality.
Adams says the Natural Leaders will continue to work for “an ideal systematic change in the way schools communicate with immigrant and refugee families.”. Natural Leaders ultimate goal is to ensure every family has an equal chance to feel valued, welcomed and connected to schools. All families and students deserve that opportunity.