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New school English program reaches out to parents

23 March 20165 comments

A group of Karen refugee parents is receiving English lessons at the school their children attend in an innovative new scheme to improve outcomes for both them and their children.

The pilot project is being run by settlement agency AMES Australia at Laverton College P-12 in Melbourne’s west.

Laverton College's Principal Richard Jones launched the English lessons for parents initiative to increase inclusion for Karen parents

Laverton College’s Principal Richard Jones launched the English lessons for parents initiative to increase inclusion for Karen parents

The College’s principal Richard Jones launched the initiative after seeing a need to improve communication between parents and the school and also an opportunity to improve educational and employment outcomes for both his students and their parents.

The program has started with a group of Karen refugee parents at Laverton but if its early promise is any guide, it might be rolled out more broadly.

Mr Jones said face to face conversation was a key component of learning.

“One of the expectations that we have is that kids are able to go home and read to their parents pretty much every night. Now our Karen kids will be able to do that and their parents will be able to understand what they’re reading and to be able to connect to maybe the story or the information,” he said.

“If it’s a text from some science work or enquiry work, and then the kids will be able to explain to their parents a little more about it; there will some conversation around it and it’s building that habit with our kids.

“Being a prep to year twelve school we’ve got the opportunity for kids to be here for twelve years and some families are here for all of that time so we want to build the skills of our children as well as their families and the parents,” Mr Jones said.

The program grew out of Mr Jones seeing a group of parents who were dependent on translators when he first came to the school eight months ago.

“There was a whole group of those parents including the Karen who were not connecting with school in an authentic sort of way,” he said.

“So I wanted to make that connection more genuine and language is the key to interaction. We can have translators and we can translate as much information as we want – and we do – our newsletters and other documents are translated into Karen.

“But to build the capacity of those parents and then build the capacity of those parents to get better jobs and then provide better outcomes for their children required some work around English language.

“So this course particularly focuses on interview skills, application, the writing, and then the practicing of those to enable the parents to achieve better employment outcomes which will then benefit the children,” Mr Jones said.

He said there had been a positive response among the parents:

“We started in term three last year and we had a regular group of parents attend all term. That’s two days a week, two hours for each session so four hours in total. They continued all of term three so we continued into term four and now we are continuing into this year,” Mr Jones said.

“Language acquisition is slow but we know we are making some progress. It’s about building trust with the parents and to enable that trust to continue in an authentic way – and often that’s around parents expressing some concerns that they may have in their own language and having those listened to by the parent’s teacher,” he said.

Mr Jones said its rich cultural diversity was both an asset and a challenge for his school and that the parent’s English program was a way of building connections between ethnic groups.

“We do have a large number of Karen families and then we have a large number of Arabic families as well as some Islander families from Samoa, and some North African families,” he said.

“These groups work well together in the school and language is a barrier so we are looking at maybe expanding this model to include some other groups that could work with AMES to improve outcomes for those families as well.”

Mr Jones said part of the rationale for introducing the program was a belief that teaching English to the parents of students ultimately benefits the students as well.

“We firmly belief this is a case. We see that the Karen parents are well connected with the school and their own community but we’d like them to be connected to the broader school community as well,” he said.

“So that would mean some other groups within the school. Their children are very respectful. If you walk around the school now you’ll see the whole school, all of those groups of people working well together. It’s calm, it’s orderly, and they’re on task. We just need the language skill to improve so that the outcomes for our children and their children are greater.

“Many of the students that come to us might come in year five or ten, with very low language skills. In the end that means they are not going to be able to achieve the same outcomes unless we improve their language skills very quickly.

“So we’ve worked on a model with an EAL consultant that we brought in last year, that is intervention within the class, and it’s targeted work around oral literacy; it’s also combining with some work from some other expert partners that we’ve done and that’s very explicit around students understanding the meaning of one sentence and then taking that meaning and seeing what the second sentence adds to that meaning and then the paragraph and then what does the second paragraphs add to my understanding of the first paragraph.

“It’s about vocab equalling knowledge and kids working through that,” Mr Jones said.

“Our teachers have grasped onto this pretty quickly because it’s a very effective way of pacing a lesson and to gauge students understanding within the class. So every hour students are expected to be able to say ‘I now know’ what they didn’t know an hour ago.

“I think the kids like that because they’re seeing that there is progress being made very quickly. Where language skill is still weakest, maybe in writing maybe sometimes in reading comprehension, there will be students that are withdrawn from class. There are additional classes before school and we are looking at whether we need to progress towards a Saturday school for some students,” he said.

Mr Jones said that ultimately the program was aimed at improving educational and employment opportunities for the whole school community.

“If we are talking about the state average being at one point and our school being somewhere below that we need to be closer to that state average very quickly to enable our students to have better outcomes and be able to get the sort of jobs that other kids are getting, study courses that other kids are able to and have experiences that others have,” he said.

Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist