Arlington, VA

Progressive Voice is a bi-weekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

By Yassmina Hassoun

The good reputation of Arlington Public Schools was mainly why I moved to Arlington about five years ago.

But if we want to maintain that reputation, we have to be more inclusive. We have to do our best to include parents who don’t have the courage to speak up. It might look easy to attend a meeting or speak up for something that negatively affects you and your children, but it is not. Many of us feel helpless to make a change because we don’t have the right tools.

One of the most important tools is to understand “the system” — where to go, who to communicate with, say what we want exactly and how to find what we need. Many newcomers, limited-English speakers, and low-income families don’t have these tools. That makes it harder for them to advocate for their kids. This is where the community should play a bigger role to secure an equal education for all students.

I have not always been brave myself. Several years ago in another city, I went to a meeting at my daughter’s school. My English was not so good then. My daughter was having trouble because she didn’t understand the directions they gave her in class. For instance, if she was supposed to draw so many birthday candles to say how old she was, she would draw flowers on the page or something else, because no one explained.

So that night, I started talking. My voice was, you know, sort of shivering at first. But they listened and they started getting my daughter some help. I realized I could help my daughter and other people, too.

Since I moved to Arlington, I felt kind of lost until I was invited to an event called Roundtable, organized by Arlington County and the Community Progress Network. The purpose was to hear from people who usually are underrepresented. This event was unique because they made everyone feel welcomed and that their voice matters. They had translators for the most often-spoken languages to make sure that everyone could fully participate. They also documented participants’ concerns. For the first time since I moved to Arlington, I finally felt that I belonged and that I was included.

I believe that’s exactly what APS needs to do. APS needs to be more inclusive, especially now during the pandemic, and to hear from parents who usually are unrepresented. There are many ways to reach that goal:

  • School Board members and the superintendent should have more meetings with minorities to be aware of their concerns and the ways that could better help them. The meetings need to be in places, ways and times that work for parents. For instance, they could meet in the drop-off time in their home school or in a neighborhood community center during the weekend. The meetings have to be well advertised and have interpreters to assure that more parents can participate.
  • Engage more parents by having simple surveys–in different languages–about what they really need to help their kids and if they feel welcome going to school.
  • Have a division-wide bilingual parent liaison who rotates between schools with high percentages of students who speak languages other than English and Spanish. This could encourage the families to be more involved in their children’s education.
  • Have easy access to an interpreter through the phone and make parents aware of this service.
  • Increase the number of equity and excellence coordinators to reflect the number of students in a school instead of having just one in each school.
  • APS has a great program called FACE (Office of Family and Community Engagement) that offers workshops to strengthen families, but this program needs to be well advertised and more effective:
  • Have a clear calendar with details of the workshops that they offer.
  • Offer more workshops for newcomers to APS.
  • Make sure that minority students have equal access to higher-level classes by offering workshops to introduce extra-curriculum, option schools, and other programs.
  • Offer more workshops to help first-generation students and their families apply for college, and know the available scholarships.
  • Reach more families by making a phone call in a family’s native language, and send flyers to encourage them to participate in these workshops.
  • Have workshops in different languages about the apps that APS students can use.

As parents we all have the urge to help our kids, but some need more support to reach the same goal. The more involved parents and equal education we have in Arlington, the better our schools will serve all children.

Yassmina Hassoun is an activist and advocate with three children. She is working hard on Arlington’s Complete Count committee to make sure Arabic-speaking people know how important the Census is. She is originally from Egypt.

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