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Mac to School made a donation of MacBooks through our Give Mac program to support student learning in Minnesota.

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Immigrant Parents and Student Learning

Learn their needs, offer adult courses, and help them acclimate to a new community.
By Audra Nissen Boyer

Many studies have documented the benefits of parent involvement in learning. Students whose parents are involved in their schooling tend to have better academic performance and fewer behavioral problems, and are more likely to graduate from high school.

While fostering parental engagement can be hard work for any school, that challenge is multiplied for schools with immigrant populations. Newly arrived American families can struggle not only with language barriers but also with cultural, economic, and technological barriers. Communities that address the needs of families holistically will be more successful in engaging parents and promoting positive learning outcomes for students.

Understanding Your Parent Population

The first step to engaging your parent community is understanding their unique challenges and needs. For example, at Mankato Area Public Schools, we have experienced a significant population increase over the past two decades of East African refugees. From 2000 to 2010, the non-white population of Blue Earth and Nicollet counties increased from 3,188 to 4,770. At Mankato schools, there are 33 languages spoken in the K-12 households and 23 countries represented in our Adult Basic Education student population.

The majority of the student families are headed by single or widowed women from Somalia who speak no English and have had no previous access to schooling. To help these parents and their children learn English simultaneously, we created a family literacy program for adults that pairs adult education courses such as English as a Second Language (ESL) with on-site preschool. On average, about 275 adults are enrolled in Adult Basic Education ESL each school year.

Look at the Whole Learning Picture

As our new American population grew, we came to see that their learning needs extended beyond English literacy. New Americans often need help learning about cultural differences and expectations so they can successfully integrate and interact with the community both within and outside of school.

To help address these needs, Mankato Area Public Schools’ Lincoln Community Center has become a hub for adult immigrant learning, offering Adult Basic Education classes, including courses such as General Educational Development (GED), College Prep, and FastTRAC, which addresses the skills gap in the in-demand areas of the workforce. Within the past five years, enrollment in ABE classes has spiked 32 percent, from 761 students in the 2008-09 school year to 1,008 students this year.

Just as important as the adult education classes are the district’s cultural liaisons. Three Somali staff members, who can speak with new immigrants in their native language and who have personal experience adapting to American culture, are employed to bridge new American families in their school experiences.

Remove Barriers to Learning

School readiness for all students is a goal of Mankato Area Public Schools. Providing regular access to books and technology for students is one strategy for helping to increase school readiness. Mankato has seen a 28 percent increase in kindergarten readiness skills over the past six years, which is attributed to our focus on increasing access to resources for students and support for parents.

In 2014, we began rolling out a program to make digital learning resources remotely accessible for families with preschool-age children. MyON, a software program, allows families to read digital books online and get personalized reading recommendations; at the same time, it lets teachers and administrators track students’ reading activity and growth.

The Adult Basic Education Family Literacy Program extended the reach of this program by partnering with the Give Mac program offered by Mac to School, through which we have been able to secure donated computers for households that lacked a computer. The Family Literacy students are trained on the use and maintenance of the computer, as well as the use of the myON reading program in their home.

To date, we have 106 early childhood students in the district with access to myON. Our ultimate goal is to make this program available to all homes with preschool-age learners across the Mankato school district.

While not every community has resources and support to create the types of programs we have in Mankato, I believe that helping immigrants acclimate to their new home will pay tremendous dividends over the long run. The sooner new American parents are able to communicate and positively participate in the community, the sooner they can support their children in becoming educated and productive citizens themselves.

Audra Nissen Boyer is director of community education and recreation for Mankato Area Public Schools in Minnesota. She is a native Minnesotan and has worked and lived throughout the state. You can contact her at


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