Welcoming migrant parents

Principals, teachers, parents and social-service providers from across Canberra came together in June to explore ways of creating a sense of belonging at school for migrant and refugee parents and students in a unique forum.

DSC03503smallCouncil partnered with ACT Principals Association and Companion House — a community organisation assisting survivors of trauma — to present the forum. It was a terrific event, with a great turnout, a broad cross section of attendees and lots of positive, practical discussion.

“We all know the importance of a strong partnership between parents and schools for a high quality education for students, but there are cultural and language barriers which prevent this happening for migrant and refugee students. Families can feel ... isolated within the school,” said Viv Pearce, Council Vice-President, in opening the forum.

During the panel discussion that followed, some excellent ideas and points arose.

“We noticed that migrant and refugee parents were under-represented at school events,” said teacher and panellist Leilah Ayton, the Multi-cultural Liaison Officer at St Francis Xavier Primary School.

To address this the school held a dinner specially for migrant families. Students decorated the hall and gave a short speech and then parents and teachers chatted informally while eating together, and explored how the school could help.

Parents reported that it was hard for them to help with homework, so the school developed an after-school program. Once a week teachers, and older students as mentors, work one-on-one with migrant students for 20 minutes each on literacy skills. Then there is afternoon tea and help with homework. The program is conducted jointly with a neighbouring school and funded, in part, by the P&Cs of the two schools.

The program also organises special activities to address particular needs. For example, local police visited to make connections with students who had witnessed police brutality in their countries before coming to Australia.

“We had kids running around in bullet-proof vests, playing dodge-ball with police!” Leilah told the forum.

Other great ideas for ways schools can connect better with migrant families were also aired by migrant parents, educators and advocates.

  • Translate newsletters and notes home wherever possible.
  • Use the Translation and Interpreter Service to provide reliable translation and a shared understanding when communicating with families.
  • Employ a community co-ordinator/liaison with a special focus on marginalised families such as refugees.
  • Summarise the lengthy school newsletter into just one page of dot points and key dates in simple English.
  • In newsletters and notes home, include key words in common migrant languages in your community.
  • Acknowledge the ‘back pack’ that kids wear every day – their worries about poverty, family still in the old country and so on.
  • For each family, know and record which parent/older sibling it is best to talk to in the household.
  • Understand that parents may be hindered from helping their kids or advocating for them because they are too nervous to enter the school or explain the problem.
  • Link well to the migrant student’s previous education.
  • Provide extra support in key transitions, such as from primary to high school and to after-school pathways.

Staff from Companion House also mentioned their four recovery goals — building safety, connections, meaning and dignity — as a platform for learning and thinking of the needs of refugee students.

It was clear from participants’ feedback that the greatest barriers to schools engaging better with migrant families were access to interpreters and a lack of staff time. However, Kathy Ragless, Companion House Director, later explained that Australia has a very good professional interpreter service that can provide on-site and telephone interpreters, often without notice.

“It is a great pity that this service is rarely used by schools,” she said. “Interpreters are trained to communicate accurately across languages without adding or leaving out information. This is crucial for any conversation involving any aspect of student welfare. Enlisting an interpreter also shows respect and a willingness to engage as equals.”

Parents also have a role to play. One school pairs migrant families with a buddy parent who acts as a friendly contact point and helps with translation, such as a quick text to say “it’s ‘mufti’ day tomorrow — that means the kids don’t need to wear uniforms.”

As one parent present put it, “just ask ‘who’s for coffee’ and this can help so much! Migrant parents often won’t ask the school for help because in their country the school is the boss! But if a parent extends a hand, they can ask them what to do.”

P&C members who came to the forum left inspired and determined to look into what their P&C and school could do differently to be more welcoming and better engage migrants in the school community.

The top tip of the day, however, seemed to be summed up by Ros Phillips, who runs the Refugee Bridging Program at Dickson College: “Make someone in the school accountable for the welfare and wellbeing of refugee students. Then, give them the time they need to properly engage parents and to advocate for each student.”

The Translation and Interpreter Service (TIS) can be contacted on 131 450.
Further resources from the forum are available by contacting the Council office.

This article appeared in ParentACTion, Term 3, 2016. See other past editions of our quarterly magazine.