Six years ago, the Arlington school system produced a video course called "Spanish for Educators" and began running it on the district's cable channel. It was a hit with teachers and administrators, but it was also popular with an unlikely group -- Spanish-speaking parents. And it gave the parents an idea.
Hildi Quiñonez, one of the creators of the series, said some of those parents, spotting her district badge at school functions or local lunch spots, would approach her and ask: "When can you do something like that for us?"
This year, their request was granted. Now showing on the cable channel and available at school libraries is an eight-part video series called "Claro! English for Parents." The video series uses vocabulary lessons and dramatic scenarios to teach Spanish-speaking parents about school policies and culture. The goal is to make the parents feel welcome -- and become more engaged -- in their children's schools, school officials say.
"A lot of parents say it's really hard being a parent when you don't know English and you don't know how the system works," said Quiñonez, a distance learning and production specialist with Arlington Educational Television. "[They say], 'If I just knew a little bit more, I'd come to meetings.' "
Parent involvement, school officials say, can mean the difference between an A student and a failing one, and the video series is one of many ways local schools are reaching out to parents with limited English skills. The Arlington school system, for example, offers adult English as a Second Language classes, and many schools host coffee hours and ice cream socials for parents who speak Spanish, the most common language among students whose first language is not English.
Like those programs, school officials said the videos also take into account that word-for-word translations of school rules and procedures are not enough -- cultural differences must also be considered.
"Sometimes they don't understand what the expectations are, and then if you add the language barrier, that simply compounds the issue," said Suzanne Grant, director of the district's Education and Employment Program, which offers English classes to parents.
Some of the 25-minute video lessons review topics that might seem basic to parents accustomed to U.S. schools but can be baffling to those new to the American system. They explain, for example, why students need parent permission to go on field trips or to get aspirin from the school nurse, or why a student's grades might be withheld for failing to return library books. Other segments cover report cards, school-supply lists and penalties for absences.
Those are the kinds of things many parents who do not speak English hesitate to ask about, said Margaret L. Gill, principal of Gunston Middle School.
"Some of the cultures -- and I don't want to generalize -- seem to be of the belief that the school knows what they're doing and the staff knows what they're doing and they don't want to get involved," she said.
The series, which was filmed last year, is hosted by an Argentine actress who introduces the topics in Spanish. School-related scenarios are acted out mostly in English by a hodgepodge cast of professional actors, Arlington students and friends of the producers. The series was partially funded by a $40,000 technology grant from the Virginia Department of Education.
Quiñonez said she chose the topics for the videos by asking teachers, school officials and parents what they thought should be covered. Some of their suggestions -- such as the intricacies of the Virginia Standards of Learning -- did not lend themselves to short video lessons. Others, including discipline, made the cut.
After the first few videos were shot, she showed them to parent focus groups. That led to producers adding subtitles and lowering the volume of background music in some parts.
The videos will be useful as the school year begins, teachers and administrators say. Kenwyn Schaffner, assistant principal at Randolph Elementary, said she plans to use them at the school's parent English classes this fall -- even with those parents whose native language is not Spanish. The images will help them pick up words and themes, she said.
"The visual aspect of the video is really the very important thing," she said.
Quiñonez said she will consider the videos successful if they get the same response as "Spanish for Educators."
"I would love to hear back from parents that they learned," she said.