Parent community specialists: Lifelines between families & schools
By Xavier Botana
My columns this year are showcasing members of our outstanding Portland Public Schools staff. This month, I’m focusing on the vital work of our parent community specialists.
Parents are our partners. Research shows students do better in school when their parents are involved in their education. But it’s hard to engage with your child’s school when you’re new to this country and English is not your home language. That’s where our parent community specialists come in.
About one-third of our 6,500 students come from homes where languages other than English are spoken – more than 60 different languages. Our parent community specialists serve as multilingual language and cultural liaisons to those families to help them develop strong relationships with our schools.
Their jobs involve assisting families with their communication needs, serving as interpreters, translators and connectors in a wide range of situations that include registering children for school, parent-teacher meetings, IEP (individualized education program) meetings and school presentations and events.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, they also do much more. Our parent community specialists are lifelines to families needing assistance with not only educational issues like remote learning, but also with food insecurity, job loss, unemployment benefits, housing and health issues.
One of our amazing parent community specialists is Monique Mutumwinka, who speaks six languages: French, Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, Lingala, Swahili and English. Originally from Rwanda, where she was a dentist, Monique came to this country in 2010 and has worked for our district since 2013. Now a U.S. citizen and proud mom of three Deering High School graduates, she loves helping other families make successful new lives in our community. Here’s more about Monique:
Tell us about your job.
We are the bridge of communication between the schools and the families. For example, we do translations, we do intake when families arrive, we do meet and greets between parents and teachers and we do Special Education plans, explaining and advocating for parents of children with special needs. Sometimes, we go in the classroom with the students, spending hours or a day with them, just to get them adjusted to the first day of life in an American school. We are cultural brokers, explaining cultural differences. For example, when you talk about a learning disability, our families don’t understand. For us, a disability is a physical disability, so we need to be cultural brokers and explain to parents. Otherwise, their students don’t get the services they need. Also, in our culture, you don’t speak unless a teacher calls on you. Here, you need to speak up if you don’t understand. You have to advocate for yourself or you don’t get help.
How has COVID changed your job?
Now we play the role of connecting families with not only educational resources but also case management. It’s 24-7, because now the needs are greater. We help with social emotional needs for the parents, academic needs for students (“My son doesn’t know how to get into his Google Classroom”), how to get school meals and how and where to get a COVID test. Families think, “Monique has the language. She can help me.”
What inspires you about your job?
I love it because I feel a lot of satisfaction when I see a student graduate. You see them go from “A” to “Z,” from intake to graduation, and you see what they can do for themselves and future generations. You have helped them to have a new life and their parents are more independent and successful. You’re a problem-solver helping the community. It’s very satisfying.