In a sun-filled classroom at an Oakland high school, a room full of adults are learning English.
Everyone here is a refugee, asylum seeker, or recent immigrant who has resettled in the East Bay, and each has sought out this free English language class offered by the nonprofit Refugee Transitions. Parents and relatives of kids in the Oakland Unified School District can sign up first.
These adult students hail from countries like Burma, Peru, Yemen and China. Some have college degrees, some never went to school, but they’re all eager to learn, in part to be better equipped to participate in their children’s education.
“I need to speak English to help my kids [with their] homework,” says Francisca. She came to the US from Guatemala, and speaks Spanish and Mam, an indigenous Mayan language. Her kids attend Oakland schools and she’s cradling a baby in her arms.
Aiesha Peñaloza is the instructor here. She says that the curriculum is based in part on this notion of parent participation.
If a child is sick and a parent needs to call the school to report him absent, “They have to be able to express that in English,” Peñaloza says. Another critical interaction: the parent/teacher conference.
Francisca says at conferences, she now knows how to ask about her kids’ behavior, and what she can do for them at home.
This idea -- that helping parents helps kids -- might seem like a no-brainer, but now there’s evidence to back it up. A report published this year by the Migration Policy Institute found that children of refugees do better academically when they are in an English-speaking family. Parents with lower language proficiency have a harder time finding stable jobs and navigating institutions like schools.
There’s also a ripple effect that can happen when members of the community are hired on as helpers in the classroom. Mezghan started out as a student in a Refugee Transitions class geared towards young mothers. They meet in a portable trailer at Franklin Elementary School. Most of these women don’t have childcare, so there’s a hired babysitter to help watch the twenty-some babies who accompany their mothers to class.
Now Mezghan works within the classroom as a teacher’s assistant, helping translate for many of the women in the class who are Afghani, like she is. Mezghan brings her little boy to school, a kid with a big toothy smile and a Spiderman sweatshirt. With a little nudging, he launches into the English alphabet.
Mezghan’s fluent enough to be able to help her son learn English, but that’s not everyone’s experience. Twenty-one-year-old Gharam comes every week to support her mother and sister-in-law. Like many children of immigrants, she grew up as a translator.
“I still do everything for them until this day,” says Gharam. “Going to the hospital, going to the store, doing their bank accounts,”
When Gharam moved here at age eight from Yemen, her parents cared deeply about her education, but couldn’t really help her directly because of the language barrier. So they hired a tutor to help her learn English, and sent her to after-school programs. Classes like this let parents participate in their children’s education in ways Gharam’s weren’t able to.
Many eager parents try to take these classes, but the group putting them on -- Refugee Transitions -- doesn’t have enough resources to meet the high demand. The Oakland Unified School District offers family literacy classes, too, but adult education programming took a hit during the big budget cuts, and the district had to scale back. Where it once offered programming in over 26 schools, now the ESL family literacy classes can be found in only six.
The need extends far beyond Oakland. In the US, eight million immigrants are parents of young children, and these parents are more likely to live in poverty. So while classes like this are here to teach them English, they can also help them get a better job and access services, as well as help their kids in school.
Gharam says that every single day she gets a phone call from someone she knows in her Yemeni community asking about how to get into these classes.
"My aunties, uncles, cousins, sisters-in-law, even my sister. She got a new baby, she wants to teach him the right way,” she says.
While I’m talking to Gharam, I see out of the corner of my eye, one small example of how these classes can impact the whole family. A middle school student wanders over from the nearby yard. He’s just tall enough to peep inside the window, trying to get a glimpse of his mom at work at her desk before he heads off to class to do the same thing.
*Note: We are only using first names for some of the students for the sake of their privacy and safety.