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For Immigrant Parents, A Steep Learning Curve In U.S. Schools

Instructor Phitsamay Uy works with students at the parental engagement workshop.
Instructor Phitsamay Uy works with students at the parental engagement workshop.

New immigrants can find it difficult to navigate the complex American school system, and it's even trickier when language and culture separate you from other parents, teachers, and administrators.

One Rhode Island organization is offering classes for Southeast Asian parents to help them better understand their public schools.

On a Tuesday night, the smell of stir-fried noodles and vegetables fills the cafeteria at Woonsocket’s Hamlet Middle School. The voices of adults speaking in different languages echo off high ceilings with a loud ventilation system in the background

Children laugh and scream and chase one another. For them, school is over. But for their parents, grandparents, and aunts and uncles here, class is about to begin.

Organizer Nittaya Saenbut uses a chant to call the adults to attention, as the children are ushered to classrooms for homework help. Saenbut works for the Providence-based Center for Southeast Asians, a non-profit organization that’s putting this workshop together.

The adults listen attentively to the night’s presenter, Phitsamay Uy, an education professor at University of Massachusetts Lowell. She’s there to teach them the rights of parents in the U.S. school system.

“You will increase your knowledge about how to advocate for your children,” said Uy.

Uy stops every few minutes for interpreters to translate what they’re saying into the adults’ native language, including Khmer, a language spoken in Cambodia, and Lao.

It makes for a long workshop, but it’s a rare opportunity for these families to hear every word in a familiar language. As her translator finishes, Uy continues in English.

“You should receive progress reports, you should be able to have at least one, parent-teacher conference, and also have access to the school staff,” she tells the parents.

American schools expect parents to be heavily involved in their children’s learning, an idea foreign to many of the adults here. Uy finds there is a cultural deference for teachers among Southeast Asians, who often assume that parents who aren’t teachers themselves have little to offer.

“But the teachers are saying no, ‘you have to talk to your child about what they’re learning,’” said Uy. “And the teachers have this expectation that the parents are going to be helping with that process. And then some of our Southeast Asian refugee and immigrant parents are saying, I have no experience in the U.S. school system, so how can I possibly help them.”

Uy tells the parents to check in with their kids regularly about what’s happening in school. She also encourages parents to contact the school to ask about meetings and to make sure translation services are available.

But Uy hopes schools take the time to learn a bit more about the cultural world of their Southeast Asian students.

“Really the parent-involvement model is based on a stay-at-home, white middle class model,” said Uy. “So you have to be able to speak English, you have to be able to read any of the communication, and you have to be available at any of the times that schools are available.”

And try making sense of a school handbook, rarely translated into Southeast Asian languages. In the cafeteria Uy, holds up an example from the Woonsocket Public Schools.

“We’re actually going to give you the handbook, so you have some time to look at what is in there. Because even if they give it to you, if you don’t know how to read it, it’s not going to be any use,” said Uy.

The parents and guardians split up into groups, and each group takes a section of the handbook to decode. Laos native Cassandra Phimmahom, has an eight year old son she’s raising in Woonsocket. She explains some parent-teacher conference policies that she reviewed with her group.

“For some parents, they did not know that the school had twice a year parent teacher conferences and one open house,” said Phimmahom. “Definitely everybody didn’t know about that.”

In the discussion, Uy explains that parent conferences are designed to update families about progress in school, but they’re also an opportunity for parents to ask questions, set goals, or raise concerns. She demonstrates with an example.

“You know what? Johnny’s doing great, but I noticed that he’s not being challenged," said Uy. "My kid is a smart kid, but he’s bored. Is there anything else you could do?”

Another issue is the emotional well-being of children, which education experts say is a key part of academic success. Dr. Jayashree Nimmagadda, a professor of social work at Rhode Island College, tells the parents she is raising two kids of her own.

Nimmagadda says raising her children in America has been vastly different from her own upbringing in India, where there was less focus on the emotional health of children.

“But if the child said, I have a headache or I have a stomachache, how do I respond?" asked Nimmagadda. "What did you eat last night? Is your head hurting here? Is your head hurting there? So we respond to physical illness very differently than when a child said I am worried about an exam.”

But in the United States,Nimmagaddafinds parents spend a lot more time addressing concerns like anxiety.

“So when I was raising my second child, I was more conscious about focusing on feelings,” saidNimmagadda. “So every time he would demand something, or he wasn’t getting along, I would focus on: ‘so it seems like you’re frustrated let’s talk about your frustration.”

Now she says her son is good about expressing himself. But she said when the family visited India, relatives sometimes made fun of him for being so open about his feelings.

“So that’s the difference,"Nimmagaddaremarked. "We are raising them here, and we have to make some decisions about context. There is no right way or wrong way. It is about how do we help our children function in this context?”

KhamphouSayasit, who grew up in Laos, now lives inWoonsocket. Her five children range in age from the youngest, who is 5, to the oldest, who is 18.  Her teenage daughter has been struggling with math. But since starting this workshop,Sayasithas changed her approach and checks in with her everyday about how the class is going.

“Before I would have drilled her, I would yell at her and say this is not acceptable,” saidSayasit. “But I learned to tone myself down, because I want the best for my kids. I mean who doesn’t?”

Sayasit’sdaughter may still be struggling with math, but now she’s getting help from her teacher. These parents do want what’s best for their children, so much so that they’re willing to try a style of parenting quite different from their own upbringing.

Organizers hope that while these parents work to adapt to American schools, the school will also work to adapt to them. 

Copyright 2016 The Public's Radio