Public school principal navigates family and community relationships in a school where 30 languages are spoken.
It’s not easy. But it’s also not impossible.
Chris Altman, Principal
Margaret Wills Elementary School
Raise Your Hand Alumna ’09, ’12, and ’16 (Harvard)
Public schools don’t choose which children they educate. The doors open freely to all students. But open communication doesn’t always come so easily. On every campus, it takes time and commitment to develop strong communication between faculty, parents, and students.
But, what happens at a school where a large percentage of students are learning English as a second language?
Principal Chris Altman knows. She leads Margaret Wills Elementary in Amarillo. This Raise Your Hand Texas alumna – a three-time Harvard Leadership Program participant – focuses more on family engagement and communication strategy than most school leaders. That’s because nearly 30 languages are spoken in the homes of her students. Often, Principal Altman needs an interpreter to help her communicate with families. Sometimes, students themselves fill in as interpreters for fellow students.
Principal Altman has gotten family engagement down to a perfect mix of art and science. “I’ve learned that to be effective, communication must be timely,” she says. “That means that sometimes, you have to communicate what you know at the time, rather than waiting until you have all the answers.”
Each week, Altman sends a “Monday Memo” to her staff outlining all activities and meetings for the week, along with the word-of-the-week for students to focus on. She makes sure she strikes the right tone in her communication with staffers and parents, especially on challenging subjects. “While I always want to be honest, I also want to presume positive intent. When I work to write (or speak) a message with that in mind, I can avoid sounding like I’m blaming someone.”
Because so many families speak different languages, Altman places a heavy importance on consistency of formats for notes and letters she sends home. “[We use] the same heading, logo, etc, and we’re very mindful of the amount of text. We make text as brief as possible, use bullet points to outline important points, and always include a picture or graphic of some sort that helps to communicate the message. According to our parents, these little things make a difference.”
Bridging the language gap at this level sounds daunting, but Principal Altman is grateful for this challenge. “I have no doubt,” she says, “that every teacher in the building would tell you the challenges are definitely outweighed by the blessings and benefits of working with students who want to learn, want to excel, and are happy to be here.”
Principal Altman says this Pre-K class is her “happy place.” Amarillo ISD educates a large number of international students; at Wills Elementary, more than 30 languages are spoken in the homes of students. Altman says the communication challenges enrich the educational experience for faculty and staff.
Q: Why did you decide to offer pre-k to children as young as three?
A: This is our third year for our 3-year-old program. This was something we decided to add because we observed that when students aren’t making the progress we would like for them to be making by 2nd and 3rd grade, undoubtedly it’s related to language, vocabulary, and things like that. So, we decided if we can start them at three, that gives them one more year of instruction in a rich language environment.
Q: You seem to take communication challenges in stride, but what about our teachers?
A: Initially teachers would think I’m not prepared to teach a population like this! What am I gonna do? Now, over time, we’ve come to realize that good instruction – the instruction that benefits all of our students, including students from poverty who lack good language as well — those same instructional strategies are what our English Second Language (ESL) children need as well. They need a lot of support. We’ve got to encourage them to think, we’ve got to provide them with rigorous content and the scaffolding they need to get there. A lot of that scaffolding is with regard to language. We are always looking for more ways to help them build vocabulary, link vocabulary. We’ve become more intentional in our vocabulary instruction.
Q: How do your students fare on state testing?
A: In our Limited English Proficient population, we are always working to improve our STAAR scores, especially in reading which is a challenge for us. But when you look at these students once they exit the ESL program, their results are often the strongest on our campus.
Q: You said your school has a huge focus on college. Isn’t that premature for this population when language is such a huge obstacle?
A: It is not premature when you consider the competition our students will face down the road when they are seeking meaningful employment. And we can focus on college because we have support locally from Amarillo College and West Texas A&M University who provide mentors and various opportunities for our students and families. Through these connections our students can visit college campuses and learn about a wide range of jobs, and everyone in our community sees that college is an attainable and worthwhile goal.
Q: What was a meaningful takeaway from your experience at the Harvard Graduate School of Education?
A: As educators, we understand the importance of continuing our learning, and when we attend a training, we expect to walk away with some “stuff” – something we’ve learned. My time at Harvard was different; I walked away with a lot of information, but more importantly, I was changed as a leader. Unlike any other training I’ve attended, my time at Harvard fed, challenged, and encouraged me. Through large and small group discussions, collaboration with colleagues, reading and reflection, and instruction from knowledgeable Harvard professors, I grew tremendously both as a person and as an educator. I have left each week with a renewed focus and a deeper conviction about my responsibility as an educator, and perhaps more importantly, the determination to lead with courage – the courage needed to continually improve our school and our students’ future.”
Principal Altman is intimately involved with the home lives of her students, like that of 6-year-old Soe San Win, pictured far right. Soe San is in the first grade. His father, Khan Mo relies on Principal Altman and her staff to help him ensure his son has a positive and successful public school experience. (Fourteen-year-old Bo Do is a Freshman in the Amarillo Independent School District.)
It would be nearly impossible for Khan Mo, who speaks limited English, to collaborate with Principal Altman in educating Soe San if there were no relationship. And Khan wants to be involved. His giddiness is palpable when he talks about what his children are learning at school. In his home where he, his wife, and two sons live, Khan Mo proudly exhibits framed copies of his son’s honor roll slips, and set on a table in the living room is a framed portrait of Soe San and his Pre-Kindergarten teacher. “I do my best,” Khan says. He feels comfortable with Principal Altman and believes that the school, too, is doing the best they can for his child.
The U.S. Department of Education, in its documentation laying out a framework on the schools, families, and communication, writes, “For schools and districts across the U.S., family engagement is rapidly shifting from a low-priority recommendation to an integral part of education reform efforts.” Schools like Wills Elementary, where language could be an incredible barrier to learning, arguably have to work extra hard, taking into account the makeup of their specific school population, and catering their communication strategy to it. “If I’ve learned one thing in my years at Wills,” Altman says, “I’ve learned that when you have students, families, teachers, and the school community working together, every challenge can be overcome!” Perhaps in response to the challenges, one of many banners that hang from the rafters in one of the hallways of Wills Elementary reads ‘It’s going to be hard, but hard is not impossible.’
Six-year-old Soe San Win sits with his classmates at Wills Elementary School and listens as his teacher reads a book aloud. Principal Altman is playing an integral role in helping Soe San and his family adapt to life in Texas. He is quickly learning to speak and write English. Soe San says when he grows up, he plans to be a firefighter.
Margaret Wills Elementary school is a true example of an ethnically diverse campus. The school is 18% African American, 23% Hispanic, 23% White, 33% Asian, and 3% two or more races. Principal Altman says it’s imperative that schools enroll non-English speaking children as soon as possible. Wills Elementary boasts a pre-k program for 3-year-olds. The pre-k classes “are my happy place” Altman says, smiling. One pre-k class in particular was an ideal learning space where verbal communication may at times be challenging; the teacher uses dimmed lighting and mellow music to set a serene environment for the young students busy at computer, building block, and painting stations.