Portland parent Micky Bondo was surprised when she went to parent-teacher conferences and didn’t see her friends and neighbors from the immigrant community.

“I didn’t see the diversity of the parents. I thought: What’s going on? Am I the only one?” said Bondo, a native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo who moved here from Atlanta in 2009. “So I went to different parents in my own community and asked them, ‘Why didn’t I see you at the parent-teacher conference at your child’s school?’ ”

The answer, she found, was that they didn’t feel connected to the school, and didn’t know how to bridge the gap.

Now a years-long effort by immigrant parents to organize and communicate their concerns to school district officials is taking a critical step forward after the Portland School Board voted to form an ad hoc committee to review district policies in order to remove barriers that have left some immigrant families feeling alienated. A “Parents Manifesto” created by the families will be used as a guide for the committee, which will be formed in the next few weeks.

Immigrant parents have long felt cut off – culturally and linguistically – from the schools that educate their children.

Safiya Mohamed, a Somali, said she remembers how difficult it was for her when she arrived in Portland in 2006. She couldn’t read school documents or communicate with her children’s teachers.

“I understand how it is for parents new to this country. I understand the struggle,” said Mohamed, a mother of 10 children ranging from 21 to 2 years old.

Even once she learned basic English, she had a hard time.

“I was able to speak English, but I didn’t understand,” she said. “It’s really hard.”

BARRIERS TO HAVING A VOICE

Some parents can’t read report cards or don’t understand the grading system. They can’t attend parent-teacher conferences because they work during the school day. Even when the district sends out multilingual notices, some families are left out because they are illiterate and can’t read the notice even if it is in their native tongue.

About two years ago, the district increased the use of “robocalls” to families, but immigrant families are confused by them and want to talk to a real person, Bondo said.

“Parents want to have a voice. They just don’t know how to do it,” said Bondo, who is a parent liaison and works with Portland Empowered, a University of Southern Maine-affiliated group that helped create the manifesto.

The document, available online, asks the district to address six areas of concern: valuing face-to-face relationships; creating safe spaces where everyone is welcome and valued as an expert; requiring parents, schools and communities to work together to improve results; working hard to include the whole range of voices in decision-making processes; being accessible to parents and community leaders from diverse backgrounds; and having sufficient resources devoted to it.

The need to connect to immigrant families is an important issue in Portland, the largest and most ethnically diverse school district in the state. More than 2,400 students, or 35 percent of total enrolled students, come from homes where a language other than English is spoken. About 60 different languages are spoken by families with children in Portland schools. More than 1,700 of the students are English language learners. In many more families, the students speak English but the parents do not.

Bondo said non-English-speaking parents don’t like having to rely on their children for information about school, and want a direct line to school officials and teachers.

The students want it, too.

Hasanain Al-Khaleeli, a recent Casco Bay High School graduate, said he wants the district to have more translators and more events that involve parents.

“It’s very hard (for my parents) to communicate with my teachers and my school and find out how well I’m doing in my school,” said Al-Khaleeli, who is originally from Iraq. “I personally think if my parents were truly involved, I would be pushed to do even better than I am doing.”

Al-Khaleeli and several other immigrants appealed to the board two weeks ago to adopt the manifesto and create the ad hoc committee.

Afterward, new Portland Superintendent Xavier Botana was visibly moved.

“I am also an immigrant,” he told them. “I came to this country as a 2-year-old from Cuba. I know exactly what you’ve said today is the reality that my family faced.”

Botana said it was “incredibly significant for me” that this was happening just as he started his new job.

“I really look forward to your continued engagement and your continued support as we do this work together,” he said.

School board member Stephanie Hatzenbuehler also had a visceral response to the parents’ plea for inclusion.

“I am a parent,” she said, her voice breaking. “The idea that I would have to get together to create a manifesto just to be heard is so powerful to me.”

The group’s work, she said, “brings to light my privilege, my children’s privilege and my community’s privilege.”

“I will do anything I can do as a board member, or as a fellow parent, to encourage Portland Public Schools to make this a better place for all of us, to grow our relationship,” Hatzenbuehler said. “I am honored and pleased and humbled.”

Highlighting the challenges faced by immigrants, just days after the parents’ presentation to the board, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump singled out Somalis during a campaign event in downtown Portland where much of his speech dwelt on the perceived threats of immigration.

The next day, Botana issued a statement affirming the district’s support for immigrant families, noting in particular the role of Somali employees, students and families in making Portland schools “a stronger and better community.”

“Our Somali students and their families are a shining example of this strength,” he said. “As our largest and one of our oldest language communities, we have seen tremendous success stories in our classrooms, academic activities and athletic venues. We have outstanding staff of Somali origin and they are contributing every day to making the Portland Public Schools a wonderful place to learn and work.”

REVISING SCHOOL EVENT TERMS

Portland Empowered is a Nellie Mae-grant funded initiative, organized out of USM’s Muskie School of Public Service, to empower parents who have historically been underrepresented. The project leaders, who include Portland School Board member Pious Ali, work with students and parents to reduce barriers and create ways to increase their involvement in Portland’s high schools, organizers say.

At a recent Portland Empowered meeting, the group discussed its success in working with Portland High School officials to make a back-to-school event more welcoming to immigrant families. The changes were minor, but significant to the immigrant community.

One, they changed the name of the event from the “Freshman BBQ” to the “9th Grader Welcome Picnic.” That’s because many immigrant families don’t know what “freshman” or sophomore or junior mean – it’s confusing terminology to them, but they know the grades. Calling it a “barbecue” implies mostly hot dogs and hamburgers will be served, whereas calling it a picnic makes it clear there will be non-meat options, and side dishes.

Emily Thielmann, a Muskie School employee who coordinates Portland Empowered, said the group has already held several community meetings where parents, teachers and school officials sat down in small groups and discussed the issues.

And while the suggested changes may not be easy, cost or inconvenience is no excuse for not treating all parents fairly and equally, Thielmann said.

The top priorities for the immigrant community – face-to-face meetings instead of email, personal phone calls instead of robocalls, meetings in the evenings or on weekends instead of during the school day – are time-consuming and less “efficient” than current practices. A common online tool used in schools across the state, Infinite Campus, requires Internet access that some families don’t have, and can be confusing for others.

OPTIMISM AND GETTING STARTED

Moreover, not all parents want the same thing. Some parents are fine with email, or multilingual fliers sent home with their children. Other parents cannot read or write in any language, and can only communicate effectively in face-to-face conversations, with the aid of a translator.

Mohamed, a parent liaison for Portland Empowered, says the immigrant families she talks to in her neighborhood of Riverton Park are very enthusiastic about the initiative.

“When I tell them about it, they kind of wake up,” she said. “They are really excited.”

Like all parents, they want their children to succeed. Mohamed said two of her older children are in college and a third works at the jetport. Her other children are in Portland schools or still at home.

“I really want my kids to succeed, and I want to ask (teachers about) them in my language in my culture,” Mohamed said.

Bondo said the new committee is a good start.

“We don’t expect it all at once. We need to take the baby steps,” she said. It would be enough “if we just tackle one of the manifesto bullet points and build on that.”

“This is our strength,” she said. “We are not fighting. We are partnering.”

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