When I first heard about the first ParentCamp International, I knew I had to be there! As a Hispanic/Latina mother of a son receiving Special Education services and who works closely with international families in schools, I felt I couldn’t miss the opportunity to meet decision makers in our educational system and share stories and experiences of our groups.
It was an eventful day! In addition to hearing from representatives of the White House, Justice Department and Secretary of Education John King, we were able to network and share stories during many breakout group sessions, which were incredibly meaningful.
During these sessions, we had truly honest conversations about issues international families and minorities face in our schools and communities. We were all able to talk about how we could collaborate to make changes that would positively impact their experiences. One thing that resonated in every session I attended was that every school with a high number of non-English speakers should have one or more bilingual liaison to assist these families and create a welcoming environment.
During the session about supporting families of students in special education (a topic dear to my heart for obvious reasons), we were able to talk about making the IEP (Individualized Education Plan) process friendlier for non-English speaking families. Having a child with developmental delays has taught me so much about compassion and acceptance, and whenever I sit at one of his IEP meetings, I cannot help but think about families who do not speak or understand English. Much of the terminology used in IEP documents can be very intimidating, even for English speakers! So, acknowledging something like this was very important to me. As a group, we talked about the importance of having highly qualified and trained interpreters who have a depth knowledge of all the vocabulary and terms commonly used in Special Education.
I also had the opportunity to attend a session about bridging cultural gaps between parents and children of different cultures – and this was perhaps the most enlightening. It was great to hear firsthand from immigrant parents of backgrounds that are different from my own. These parents were asking for more resources to help them get involved in their children’s education, especially more bilingual staff in schools. Many of them have the language barrier and don’t know who to look for when they need help. It was interesting to see how every school district has different programs to assist international families. Some are way ahead than others in the process, which is why we discussed how important it is for parents and community leaders to advocate for more resources and have their voices heard in events such as this.
ParentCamp International exceeded my expectations. I participated in real brainstorming sessions on how we could improve our educational system and provide international families the resources and tools to help their children be successful academically.
But perhaps the most important thing I took away from this experience was the people I met. This was a great chance to network with other parents and representatives from other school districts. I met a few parents from Virginia and Maryland who also have children in special education. We talked about our fears, struggles and hopes for the future. I also met others from Howard and Fairfax County who work with International families as well. We shared our concerns and the things we do in our schools to support family involvement. It got me thinking about the saying, “It takes a village.” It really does take an entire community to make substantial changes — and I am sure these conversations were the start of something great!
Valerie Perez Vega is a parent of four and was a ParentCamp International attendee. She also works with international families in Anne Arundel County Public Schools in Maryland as a Bilingual Family and Community Outreach Facilitator.