NH-ME LEND and New Mainers Public Health Initiative

An Interagency Parent Advocacy and Information Project

January 20, 2020

Marnie Morneault and Hibo Omer
Marnie Morneault and Hibo Omer

Over the past two decades, Maine has experienced a rapid growth of racially, ethnically and linguistically diverse populations. Although Maine's population is largely White (95%), children in Maine are disproportionately from minority populations; currently 9% of children in Maine are from a race other than White.

Lewiston, Maine is the second largest city in the state and a secondary resettlement area for refugees from Somalia (ethnic Somalis and ethnic Bantus)-meaning that these immigrants migrated to Lewiston from their initial (primary) settlement destination in the U.S.

Culturally and linguistically diverse parents often experience challenges in understanding the U.S. education system and the nuances of the special education system, in particular. Individualized Education Program (IEP) team practices often inhibit culturally diverse parents' meaningful participation and collaboration in these systems. Some immigrant parents report feeling a "lack of being a part" of the IEP process, as well as being generally disempowered by the school system. Consequently, reported outcomes included more restrictive placements for children and lack of growth on IEP goals. Additionally, parents sometimes sought less inclusive settings due to a lack of understanding of the value of inclusion across the lifespan.

In response, the University of Maine Center for Community Inclusion and Disability Studies (ME UCEDD) partnered with New Mainers Public Health Initiative (NMPHI) to develop, deliver and evaluate parent advocacy training modules emphasizing the IEP process and advocacy within the K-12 system for Somali parents of children on the autism spectrum. NMPHI is a public health and social service agency headquartered in Lewiston, Maine that serves New Mainers-recent immigrants to this secondary resettlement area and their families. NMPHI's presence as both a translator for and cultural broker with the Somali families was essential to the success of this partnership.

ME UCEDD research associate Marnie Morneault, M.Ed., and NMPHI program director, Hibo Omer, MPH, with the skilled assistance of two 2018-2019 University of Maine trainees in the NH-ME LEND Program, conducted a series of responsive listening sessions using oral culture-centered strategies to capture Somali parents' experiences with the IEP process and K-12 education system. These stories served the dual purpose of relationship building and effective data gathering and were the foundation for the training sessions.

Funding support from a 2018 Focused Assistance to Support Training (FAST) Project grant created an opportunity to expand this new relationship between the NH-ME LEND Program and New Mainers Public Health Initiative. The funding helped to produce culturally and linguistically diverse didactic content and clinical opportunities for LEND fellows; provided all trainees with the requisite background on Somali populations in both Maine and NH; and cultivated future trainee leadership placements and cultural competency fieldwork experiences with NMPHI.

"Throughout the FAST project," said Morneault, "we paused to reflect on these two questions: (1) How do we support culturally diverse parents' meaningful collaboration with the special education system in a way that meets their individual and cultural needs; and (2) How can we support culturally diverse parents' efforts to become effective advocates for their children in a way that meets their individual and cultural needs?

Over the lifespan of the project, Omer and Morneault employed three primary strategies for supporting Somali parents' successful collaborations and advocacy: 

  1. Emphasize oral culture-centered strategies. Special education is largely a written culture (documentation) that conflicts with the Somali culture of oral language.
  2. Beyond interpretation: the role of the cultural broker. Be a bridge between cultures. Understand the conceptual barriers and nuances between home life and school life. Help parents understand what happens at school; why school is necessary; and the role of the school. Help the school learn to communicate effectively with parents. What are the parents' perspectives and needs? What educational progress is the child making?
  3. Learn the special education system and its documentation. Teach culturally diverse parents the structures and nuances of the special education system and their role as parents within that system. Familiarize them with special education terminology. Support them in their efforts to become full partners in the process of creating documentation that involves their children. 

The benefits of partnering with culturally diverse parents include the following: more inclusive placements for children in schools; improved home-school connections; a need for fewer meetings; more consistency in attendance of meetings; and parents telling a story where they have more voice in their child's educational experience. 

"A light has been turned on for me," said a Somali parent of a first-grade child with autism. "I can stop the meeting if I don't feel comfortable. I don't have to just agree. I don't have to just say 'yes' to get services; I am a part [of the team]."

2.	Parent training group with Marnie Morneault and LEND trainees April Fournier and Crystal Cron.

Parent training group with Marnie Morneault and LEND trainees April Fournier and Crystal Cron.