How a Prince William Co. parent liaison launched English-speaking classes for parents

Not long after Dena Hammad started her first year as parent liaison at Bennett Elementary School in Prince William County, Virginia, the school conducted a community survey.

The responses indicated parents wanted to participate in a class that would help them improve their English communication skills. The school has about nine primary languages spoken across the building, Principal Shelley Pohzehl said.

So, Hammad researched nearby libraries and churches to see if they were offering any English courses. Instead, she found “there’s a little bit of a deficit right now in our community with that, because of just a lack of people available for that service.” A countywide program did exist to help families learn the language, Pohzehl said, but wasn’t aimed at giving them the tools they’d need to have informal conversations about school.

After more research and conversations with teachers at the Manassas school, Hammad started planning weekly lessons exclusively for parents to learn conversational English. Since the first meeting in November, the one-hour class on Wednesdays has grown to include about 20 parents.

“We want them to feel confident in communicating with us, with the doctors, with their community members,” Hammad said. “That’s really where it came from.”

In one of the first lessons, Hammad went over the subjects kids learn in schools, how recess looks and what lunch may be like on a given day. Then, the class discussed conversation starters that parents may be able to use at home, such as, “How was school today?” or “How was science or math?”

The parents have also learned how to speak to doctors or bank employees, and how to call the school to request a conference.

Sometimes, they use flashcards to reinforce concepts, and the parents are grouped together based on skill level, enabling everyone to learn at their own paces.

“For some of our parents and our children, our children don’t speak their native language anymore,” Pohzehl said, “but the parents only speak the native language, so there’s a huge barrier in communication between a parent and their own child. This is supporting them as well.”

She said the free classes have been particularly helpful in creating a sense of community after the height of the pandemic, “where the doors were shut and families weren’t invited into the school building — there seemed to be a barrier.”

The classes are taught in English because of the school’s diverse population.

“We have some who speak French, Ukrainian, there’s people from Afghanistan, and then we have Spanish,” Hammad said. “So really, the classes need to be in English, but we do have people who help us translate within.”

The school has toys and activities for kids while their parents are in the classroom. Hammad has been able to get grants or donations to pay for Uber trips for parents who don’t have an easy way to get to the school.

“We have parents calling from Woodbridge, we have parents calling from other elementary schools that are interested in coming,” Hammad said. “We’ve had a parent call from Unity Reed (High School) that wanted to come and she joined us. We’re accepting anyone in our community that would like to come. We’re not turning our backs on anyone.”

Parent Alex Kosik attends the classes with his wife and said they’re “really helpful.”

“Some parents coming already have a very good level of language proficiency,” Kosik said. “But they feel that their kids who are already in school are even better than them.”

The program is the first of its kind in the county school system, Pohzehl said, and other parent liaisons are inquiring about how to organize a similar class.

“When she designed this and began, there’s no curriculum and there were no documents,” she said. “She didn’t have anything to go with. She found the work and she found the materials and she created it from scratch.”

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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