Engaging Families, Ensuring Education Success: A Back-to-School Tour with the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics

In Springdale, Arkansas, the Hispanic population grew by more than 150 percent between 2000 and 2011, largely driven by the arrival of mostly Hispanic immigrants. The school district’s public school population is now 44 percent Hispanic, and its English Learner population is also 44 percent of students. The city has done a remarkable job of embracing their newest community members and ensuring that all students and families are supported.

As part of ED’s Back-to-School Bus Tour, the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics (WHIEEH) visited Springdale to learn about the city’s community integration efforts. For the visit, WHIEEH collaborated with the Cisneros Center for New Americans, an organization that works to accelerate the integration of new Americans into American society. One stop was at an early childhood center where newly enrolled families pose for portraits that are placed in the classroom, to help ease the child’s transition and alleviate separation anxiety. Coffee sessions between new and veteran parents help familiarize families with the center and the community.

Another stop included the Turnbow Elementary School family literacy program where parents attend English language classes and scheduled PAC or “Parent and Child” time, in which parents join their children in class. They also learn about other subjects, including safety and financial assistance, from community partners such as the police and fire departments and local banks.

A mother described the program’s impact on her and her daughter: “When I signed up for this program, I saw my daughter with a huge smile, so I know it really mattered to her that I was in it,” she said.

At the Language Academy at Har-Ber High School, newly arrived students write their aspirations on classroom walls. These not only remind students to work hard, but they also provide instructors with daily reminders of their own role in helping all students reach their full potential.

The Academy has served to support integration into the larger community.

“The Language Academy helped me communicate with other people,” one student said. “At first, I didn’t know the basics …and now I’m in a regular class. I know all the things that the teacher tells me, and how they teach me and help me so much.”

A town hall for leaders from throughout the community provided context for the school district’s work. Superintendent Jim Rollins provided an overview of the district’s comprehensive efforts and a panel of experts discussed best practices on immigrant integration.

“Education is the great equalizer – quality education is accessible to immigrant families in Springdale,” said Professor William Schwab, University of Arkansas.

Throughout the tour, it was evident that efforts to break down language barriers and motivate students to succeed in and out of the classroom are making a difference.

Springdale’s family engagement and integration vision and efforts were recognized in a Race to the Top-District grant award in 2013. The program helps localities develop plans to personalize and improve student learning, increase educational opportunities, and provide resources that lead to a high-quality learning experience.

The program has enabled Springdale to provide 100 additional preschool slots to the community’s children and draw up plans to expand their family literacy program to each of their 30 schools.

The commitment to immigrant integration through family engagement is in the soul of the Springdale community. Superintendent Rollins put it best: “Those are the kind of things that can happen when you embrace children and help them find their true potential and promise.”

Emmanuel Caudillo is a Special Advisor for the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.