The Grassroots Leadership Team at United Way of Salt Lake works to engage community members in conversations about their experiences to create a system where the experiences of those most impacted by issues are guiding the solutions. They do this by first completing community-based research projects to illuminate the stories of those in our communities, then developing actions within the community and institutions to make lasting change. During her fellowship with the Grassroots Leadership team, Cristina Velasquez organized a project focused on helping Spanish-speaking parents engage more easily with the schools their children are attending.
My name is Cristina Velasquez, I was a fellow with United Way of Salt Lake in fall 2021. I am currently a senior at the University of Utah, double majoring in Economics and Political Science. My family immigrated from Lima, Peru when I was three years old, and we have been the in the Rose Park/Glendale area ever since. My background is what led me to my research project about Latinx parents’ involvement at SLCSE-Bryant middle school. This was an important project for me because I attended Bryant Middle School before it joined the SLCSE network. I remember how difficult it was for my Spanish-speaking mother to navigate my educational journey.
I met with the principals of the SLCSE network schools, which have a population of Latinx students, at the beginning of my fellowship. In our meeting, they shared that they had noticed a disconnect between the schools and Latinx parents which impacted their school involvement. We saw a need to identify barriers faced by Latinx parents when trying to be involved at SLCSE Bryant, so I began developing this project with the support of the school.
My central research question for this project was “How do Latinx parents want to be involved at SLCSE-Bryant?” I created a sub question to learn “What can SLCSE-Bryant do to support Latinx parent involvement?” I decided on these research questions because, in order to discuss how the school can address these barriers, it was important for me to identify how Latinx parents wanted to be involved with the school and what barriers they face. I decided early in the research phase that I would focus only on parents with students currently attending SLCSE-Bryant; this was done intentionally to understand the current climate. In addition, I focused solely on Spanish speaking Latinx parents; I did this because navigating the education system can be more challenging for Spanish-speaking parents due to cultural differences and language barriers.
To connect with parents and conduct outreach for this project, Flor (another fellow) and I attended parent teacher conferences at SLCSE-Bryant and started recruiting Spanish-speaking parents for a focus group. We began tabling and set up a large piece of paper where we asked parents to write down the primary barriers they faced in connecting with the school. Tabling at the parent teacher conference was instrumental in my outreach efforts. This event was how I recruited all the participants for my focus group. I was also able to use the written responses I collected to add more voices when answering my research question.
My main method of data collection was a focus group that included five Spanish-speaking parents. This focus group shed a light on the main barriers Spanish-speaking parents face when trying to be involved with the school. My findings were that parents had trouble with communication, time, and translation. Many parents opened up and shared that their main barrier for participation was the language barrier; a lack of quality translation made parents feel disengaged. One parent shared that for her it was very difficult to go into the office for everyday things like excusing an absence when a Spanish-speaking office administrator was not there to act as a translator. The parents stated that because most of the teachers do not speak Spanish, there was no other viable option for translation when the Spanish-speaking administrator was not there. This led to students having to translate for parents as a last resort and speaks to the need for more readily available trained adult translators.
Another parent shared a story of when her son got COVID-19. She called the school to see what the next steps were for his return to school. Unfortunately, no Spanish speakers were available, so the steps were unclear; the parent ended up having to pick her child up from school because of miscommunication. This example is important because it brings up another barrier Spanish-speaking parents face: time. The parents stated that they work more than one job, have other children, and struggle to be involved due to challenges with available time. This example of a parent having to leave work to pick her child up from school shows how important effective translation and communication is because it highlights how miscommunication can further burden parents who already have a limited amount of time.
Another example of the importance of time was shared by a parent who was a part of the School Community Council. He stated that they began with five Spanish-speaking parents on the council and gradually that number decreased to three. He expressed his frustration because they could not make decisions in their meetings because there were too few of them. This began a conversation where the parents in my focus group shared that they could not make the morning meetings because of work and having other children to care for. One parent stated how it was impossible for her to go to the meetings because she needed to drop off her other children at another school. It is clear that parents were unable to attend events like these because of the time they were held.
A finding that was very unexpected, but exciting, was the desire to know more about higher education. Parents wanted to know more about the application and admission processes for colleges and universities and what resources, like scholarships, are available to support their kids. I was not expecting this finding because these were parents of seventh and eighth graders. However, during the focus group, parents shared how much they value education and want to know more. Parents started asking questions about getting scholarships and different higher education resources. One parent even shared how they were meeting with their child’s counselor soon to discuss the transition from middle school to high school and to receive guidance on next steps.
Based on these findings I recommend these next steps: effective communication, trained and readily accessible adult translators, and college prep workshops for Spanish-speaking parents. Effective communication is essential for parents to be involved in their child’s education and the English language barrier should not be a reason why they are not properly informed. Having trained, readily accessible adult translators is crucial because it will make parents feel more comfortable and reduce the risk of miscommunication. Finally, it is important that Spanish-speaking parents have access to a Spanish-language workshop regarding college preparation, including the structure of higher education, how to get their student to college, and resources available to pay for it.
The biggest take away I got from my research project is that Spanish-speaking parents care. There was never a doubt in my mind that they cared about their children’s education, and my findings cemented that belief. Spanish-speaking parents care and want to be involved, but for that to happen the barriers they face must be recognized and addressed. I feel so incredibly lucky to have met these wonderful parents and I am hopeful that we can acknowledge these barriers and work to make collective change.
By Cristina Velasquez, Grassroots Leadership Organizer, United Way of Salt Lake