How the pandemic led St. Louis-area schools to better serve families that speak other languages
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, more than 100 parents logged onto a Ritenour School District town hall meeting to ask questions and have them answered — entirely in Spanish.
The families wanted information about parent-teacher conferences, summer school, district-issued technology and kindergarten registration. Spanish-speaking counselors, IT professionals and other district staff answered questions and translated responses from administrators.
It’s one example of how some local districts have recently increased the ways they reach out to families that speak languages other than English at home.
Ritenour started holding its Spanish-language town halls during the pandemic, and school officials say they will likely continue to do them even as things return to normal. They have fostered new connections with families that don’t speak English, said Martha Piñones, a bilingual therapeutic counselor who has been helping lead the meetings.
“A lot of the times [families] weren't able to participate in ways that they wanted to and be as proactive in education as they wanted to because of the language barrier,” Piñones said. “So it is a great space for them to come in and just ask any question to all of our bilingual staff and about different areas or just anything that they need within the community.”
When the pandemic sent students home, school communications became essential, with parents reporting increased interest in education news, according to new research from Calvin University in Michigan. But that same study found a big gap in whether or not information needs are being met for families of different backgrounds.
"One thing that parents did tell us is that they feel like they're not getting enough information that's going to help them navigate their systems and solve problems," said Jesse Holcomb, assistant professor of journalism at Calvin. “In some cases, we found that a language barrier was a big issue in terms of parents not feeling like they could keep up with what was going on in schools.”
Schools have legal obligations to provide information in a language families can understand. They are required to provide written translations or spoken interpretations, and if they do not, families can file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy for families to access the information they need when there is a language barrier between parents and a school district.
A regional effort
Other districts in the St. Louis region also say the pandemic led to an increase in communications in languages other than English.
St. Louis Public Schools has seen more than a 65% increase in the use of language access services. Alla Gonzalez del Castillo, who oversees the district’s outreach to families that speak languages other than English, said virtual learning increased the number of contacts with parents and opened a window for communication.
“Prior to the pandemic, for the most part, as a school district, our teachers were waiting for the parent to come to the school,” said Gonzalez del Castillo, the district’s director of English for Speakers of Other Languages Bilingual Migrant Program. “I think this experience of transitioning to virtual learning and staying in virtual learning for a little bit gave us an opportunity to experience communication with the English Language Learner parents in a different way.”
St. Louis Public Schools students speak more than 50 languages and represent more than 60 countries.
The district has a team of translators and interpreters on staff that provides language access services in Spanish, Arabic, French, Somali, Swahili and Vietnamese. The team is able to cover 70% of language needs in the district. For the rest, the district contracts with an outside vendor to provide translations and interpretations.
Gonzalez del Castillo said the district has found families prefer spoken services, like robocalls and interpreted meetings, because many of the languages families speak have a rich oral tradition, and translating written communication can add an additional barrier.
“While we are trying to bridge this communication gap, we also don't want to create more gaps around access to technology or just around computer literacy and being able to use functional email to receive that message,” said Gonzalez del Castillo.
For years before the pandemic, St. Louis Public Schools has been holding meetings with parents, like those happening in Ritenour, in multiple languages. The district typically holds four per year and conducts the meetings in five major district languages.
Both the Collinsville and East St. Louis school districts also hold some meetings for parents in Spanish, and many more districts say they have interpreters available to translate district meetings in real time.
Other districts also say they increased translated communications because of the pandemic. Affton Schools changed its mass notification system to offer automatic translations, and the Rockwood School District expanded its system to include more languages. The St. Charles School District started translating communications for the first time after the March 2020 lockdowns, and the Parkway School District increased its budget for its website translations.
During the pandemic, East St. Louis worked with a local nonprofit to provide bilingual social work services, home visits and translation services as well as resources like food assistance, PPE and diaper giveaways.
Even before COVID-19 sent students home, the Ritenour School District was making an effort to reach out to families in Spanish and other languages. The district has had an International Welcome Center, staff and contract translators and an app called Class Dojo that automatically translates teacher’s messages for families.
Gabriela Carrazco is a Ritenour parent who moved to the school district from North Carolina about 18 years ago because her sister and her family live in the area.
She said she has stayed because she really likes the school district and has always been able to communicate with her sons’ schools through the district’s interpreters. Carrazco has also attended the town halls in Spanish.
“It was really a great help, because you can learn about a lot of different things that sometimes you may have been wondering about and because then there is an opportunity to ask questions,” Carrazco said in Spanish.
Some of the district’s translation services are provided by Sindy Morales, who spends her time working with families that speak Spanish to connect them with the schools and help them access services, like vaccine clinics.
“I think all St. Louis has my number,” Morales said and laughed. “So on the weekends, I'll get phone calls. You know: ‘This is going on, can you help me with this? I don't want my child to go to school on Monday like this.’”
She even gets calls from parents in other school districts in the area who are struggling to do things like register their kids for school. She tries to help but often doesn’t have time outside of her work with Ritenour families.
It’s a busy job, and Morales says she keeps going because of her own experience of being made fun of in school before she learned English.
“When I see families, it just breaks my heart that they don't know,” Morales said. “I like doing it, and that's what keeps me going.”
Morales said that during the pandemic, a lot of families have been asking her to help them find mental health support.
The district recently hired Piñones, a bilingual counselor who does the type of work you might typically go to a therapist for outside of a school setting. Piñones works in the district’s International Welcome Center, which serves families new to the U.S.
In the town halls, Piñones said families have had a lot of questions about how to meet basic needs — they’re looking for winter coats, need information about housing resources, or want to know what resources are available for kids. Piñones and her colleagues have worked to translate resources that are shared with the whole district, like fliers for free meals or diapers.
You have to support the whole family to support the student, Piñones said.
“Especially when we're thinking about culture, right?” she said. “Latino culture is very collectivist, and, you know, it's a community. And if you are only dealing with the kid, you are completely negating a whole part of that person.”
Because Piñones is bilingual, her work can be more immediate for families. She remembers her and her family having to wait for interpreters when she was young.
“To have someone who is culturally aware, is able to speak their language and also knows about the resources for this particular population is huge and makes it so much smoother to be able to aid a family and help them feel supported throughout,” Piñones said. “Whereas I think if we had to use an interpreter, there would be that idea of, not sure if there is a misinterpretation, if they’re understanding correctly.”
Piñones said she will continue to do the work to make the school system equitable for Spanish-speaking families, to make sure they know they matter.
Brian Munoz contributed to this report.
If you have had trouble accessing school resources because of a language barrier, we’d like to hear from you. Please email Kate Grumke at firstname.lastname@example.org. Se habla español.
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