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Context Connections

Home-School Partnerships: Changing How We Engage

by Hetal Ascher |

Fostering a collaborative partnership between teachers and families is paramount to a student's success. However, forming such partnerships continues to be a challenge in many school communities across the country—especially when it comes to partnerships with families of students identified as multilingual learners of English (MLEs). To shed light on effective strategies for home-school partnerships, I had the privilege of chatting with Dr. Lorena Mancilla, associate director for K–12 partnerships and policy at Migration Policy Institute’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy.

Dr. Mancilla has extensive experience as an educator, researcher, and advocate for MLEs and their families. She joined our virtual meeting from her brightly lit home office where we discussed our experiences in the field and our beliefs on the importance of partnerships with families as a means to support family involvement in students' learning journeys. In this column, I share insights gained from our discussion.

Home Languages Are Assets

An insight gained from my conversation with Dr. Mancilla about her research with families of MLEs is that home languages are often perceived by families as an asset to be cherished and maintained. For example, Dr. Mancilla reflected on an interview she conducted with a mother of three children—all were identified as MLEs. In the interview, the mother had expressed she believed it was important for her children to maintain the family’s home language (Spanish). When asked to elaborate on why she believed it was important, the mother’s response was, “primero está la familia [family comes first].”

To this mother, communication within the family in their home language was valuable and worth maintaining because it would allow her children to have relationships with relatives and navigate environments where their home language was spoken, such as big, multigenerational family gatherings. This perception of home languages as an asset has been a common theme in Dr. Mancilla’s research and work with families of MLEs.

She discussed the emotional weight many parents feel in thinking about their children being unable to maintain a conversation in the family’s home language with grandparents or other relatives. “Often by the second generation, the home language starts to disappear and by the third generation, it’s gone. I see that in my own family,” Dr. Mancilla explained to me, “and in my work with parents, I have had conversations with parents to help raise awareness about language loss.”

Dr. Mancilla advocates for educators to acknowledge and respect families’ beliefs around language and recognize that some families seek support in maintaining their home language(s). One of the family engagement resources she helped to develop while she worked at WIDA is the Family Connections through Home Languages flyer—a one-page document, available in multiple languages, that communicates how valuable home languages are to maintaining family connections.

Reflecting on her experiences and lessons learned through her research with parents of MLEs, she said, “If we had a true partnership [with families], we should be having these conversations about language beliefs because their children are in EL programs that are impacting language development, and often, students are in ESL programs that don’t support home languages. So, what is the family going to do?”

In Practice

For schools that are unable to offer bilingual education program models for MLEs, Dr. Mancilla suggests creating an inventory of linguistic resources in the community that offer family programs and events in languages other than English, as well as free online resources.

Real-Life Example

In Chicago, Son Chiquitos ( is a community-based organization established by families, teachers, and artists that offers educational programs for children to help strengthen Spanish language development and cultural identity through music, art, and literature.  Again, not all schools will be able to offer instruction or support in languages other than English, but compiling resources from community and educator networks can help families in their efforts to maintain their home language(s).

Making Communication Meaningful

Another key insight from my conversation with Dr. Mancilla was on the importance of meaningful communication in home-school partnerships. Decades of research in the field of family engagement identify two-way communication as a vital element of home-school partnerships. In two-way communication, the parties involved have opportunities to share information back and forth to ensure the information being communicated is received and/or understood. A practical example of two-way communication is a conversation between a teacher and a parent during a conference where the teacher addresses questions the parent has. Conversely, one-way communication is the transmission of information from the sender to the receiver without opportunities for back-and-forth exchanges. Examples of one-way communication commonly used in schools include mailing information home and posting information online.

Under federal civil rights law, states and school districts have an obligation to provide information to parents identified as Limited English Proficient (LEP), which includes many MLE families, in a way that is meaningful to them. This can include providing translations, interpreters, and/or sharing information in a variety of formats (e.g., audio recordings, infographics).

In Practice

One way that schools can foster partnerships with families of MLEs is to consider the way they communicate with families. Are there opportunities for two-way communication? Or, are families of MLEs mostly subjected to one-way communication? What information is shared with families in languages other than English?

For example, sharing student outcome data with family and community stakeholders is a key element of school accountability systems. Through her research and work with families of MLEs, Dr. Mancilla has learned how challenging it can be for parents to understand student assessment data—even when information shared with them is translated. This is due, for example, to concepts embedded in assessment reports that parents are unfamiliar with or translations of technical jargon that are hard to understand.

Also, she has learned that due to a variety of reasons (e.g., embarrassment, fear, language barriers) some families are hesitant to ask clarifying questions when they do not understand information shared with them. “There’s a difference there between engaging with families as partners vs. as recipients of a score report. When sharing important information with families, such as information about student outcomes or high-stakes assessments, communication must be meaningful,” Dr. Mancilla emphasized. She recognizes that ensuring meaningful communication with families of MLEs is no easy feat.

In Practice

When it comes to translations, one suggestion Dr. Mancilla gave is for districts to create an internal style guide, which can be shared with all schools, where they document how they will translate educational terms, phrases, and concepts. For example, “accountability system” is a phrase that can be translated but it is also a concept that must be explained and translated. Not all families of MLEs will be familiar with such a concept and how it relates to their child’s education.

In addition, investing time and resources into gathering feedback from families on existing translations can help improve communication in languages other than English. Imagine all we could learn from families of MLEs if we took the time to simply ask, “Does this make sense to you? What could we change to make it better?”

Questions to Think About

My brief conversation with Dr. Mancilla shed light on the importance of partnerships between schools and families for a student’s success. Our conversation prompted a few critical questions for reflection:

    • What do I believe about home-school partnerships?
    • What do I believe families of MLEs bring to their children’s educational journey?
    • How do I communicate with families of MLEs? Do I provide opportunities for two-way communication?
    • If not, what steps can I take to change my communication practices?
    • What resources or support do I need for this communication? How can my school or district support me?


Here are a few resources that can support educators and schools as they build partnerships with multilingual families:

Family Toolkit, NCELA
The family toolkit, available in four languages, provides families with important information from how to enroll a student in school to information regarding their rights as parents in American public schools.

Connecting with ELL Families: Strategies for Success, Colorín Colorado
This article outlines several strategies that schools, teachers, and administrators can use to welcome and support multilingual families. It includes practical tips and real examples from schools around the United States.

Language-Focused Family Engagement, WIDA
This article, coauthored by Dr. Mancilla, offers suggestions for language-focused family engagement. It includes examples from the field and a reflection tool for educators.


About the author

Hetal Ascher

Hetal Ascher has served multilingual learners in various roles including as an independent consultant, a WIDA professional learning specialist, an English language teacher, and a program coordinator. She volunteers at TESOL on the Professional Learning Council and as the incoming chair for the Reading and Vocabulary Interest Section. She has an MA in ESL education and a BA in ESL education K–12.

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