When Patricia Estrada's first-grade son got into a conflict with another Duveneck Elementary School student during a game of four square, the school asked her to come in for a meeting with their teacher and the other student's parents.
Estrada doesn't speak any English, so her 7-year-old son had to translate for her during the meeting.
This is not an uncommon situation for Spanish-speaking parents whose children attend Palo Alto schools, but the district is hoping it, and other situations that arise for minority students in Palo Alto, will become much rarer with the creation of a new parent-liaison program. A pilot program launched during the last school year with one parent liaison has grown to a full staff of seven who serves as bridges between schools and parents of all students of color.
Each elementary school in Palo Alto now has its own parent liaison, most of whom are bilingual. They help parents with everything from translating school newsletters or progress reports to attending parent-teacher conferences.
The district has long had tutors who work with beginning English language learners in their native tongues on their mainstream-class assignments. Part of their role was also to "make students feel comfortable and do outreach to families," said Judy Argumedo, who oversees the district's English Language Learner and Voluntary Transfer programs.
But more needed to be done, Argumedo thought, to serve populations of parents who, because of language barriers, work schedules and other reasons, felt disconnected, excluded and on the margins of their children's educations. So last year she tapped one of the district's primary-language tutors, Jose Corado (a native Spanish speaker) to become a parent liaison on a pilot basis at four elementary schools identified as having the greatest need for such a role: Duveneck, Walter Hays, Hoover and Addison.
All of a sudden, Corado became very, very busy. During the first phone calls he made to introduce himself to parents, he was met with an immediate barrage of questions -- about the schools' free and reduced lunch programs, school events, scheduling parent-teacher conferences, teacher and schoolwide newsletters and homework assignments. Parents he worked with at one elementary school started attending more schoolwide events, Argumedo said. The second he stepped on campus, teachers would approach him for help communicating with families.
A parent liaison hired on a pilot basis for Gunn High School this year, Stephanie Mendoza, similarly could not meet the demand during the one day a week she was scheduled to be there. She now works two days a week and also supports a newly formed Hispanic parents group, which has about 25 members, Mendoza said.
Increased engagement with low-income parents and parents of color has become a priority for the district this year following recommendations from the superintendent's Minority Achievement and Talent Development committee, which worked during the last school year to evaluate how to best address Palo Alto's achievement gap. The committee's members frequently talked about the difficulties faced by minority and low-income parents who might not speak English or work more than one job: They can't be at their children's schools as often as they would like; they have less access to academic resources and enrichment opportunities; and they have a harder time navigating a complex school system.
The minority committee's final report begins with several quotes, including the following from a Latino parent: "Relationships are very important to us and we really want to have better connections and champions at school."
"When you're not coming from the typical Palo Alto home," Argumedo said, "sometimes there is some cultural mismatch and parents may not know what they really need to do to get their child totally involved in school, so students can sometimes feel a little bit left out because their parents aren't doing some of the same things."
"I think parent liaisons are providing that bridge because there is somebody at the site who can help them navigate the school culture," she added.
The success of last year's pilot led to the addition this fall of six other parent liaisons to cover all of the elementary sites, with one also working at Jordan Middle School. The middle school already has an instructional aide fulfilling that role, and Argumedo said they hope to soon expand the program to Terman Middle School. Palo Alto High School already has an outreach specialist who serves a similar purpose. One day a week, each parent liaison goes to the school to support both parents and teachers. They sit in the staff lounges so that busy teachers can quickly fill them in on what might be going on with a student and so they can pass along a piece of information to a parent. Many share their cellphone numbers with the parents and make themselves available beyond the one day a week they're at the school.
The parent liaisons also work as a team, meeting once a month for trainings and to debrief on issues they've been dealing with at their schools. At a recent meeting, the program manager of Palo Alto Adult School's English as a Second Language (ESL) program reviewed the classes offered, including a new civics unit in an ESL class called "interacting with your child's school and teachers." A second presentation from youth LGBTQQ+ group Outlet led to discussion about gender norms and what gender-related terms might be acceptable in different countries versus the United States. Corado and Mendoza gave a presentation in Spanish the same week at Gunn about graduation requirements, financial-aid options and important college-application dates.
On a recent weekday morning, Corado, who is now the district's lead parent liaison, sat in Duveneck's staff lounge, speaking with parents as they came in. One mother dropped in, with a baby on her hip, to talk with him in Spanish about scheduling after-school pickup for her son. Patricia Estrada came in soon after.
Estrada said her experience as a parent at Duveneck before Corado arrived was challenging because of the language barrier. Her husband speaks English but works full time so has to request time off to come in for meetings. Helping her son with homework was difficult. Whenever a situation arose at school, they would have to find someone who speaks Spanish -- sometimes a district translator, though Corado said the process for obtaining one proved unreliable and ineffective -- or she would rely on her young son, an English language learner, to communicate.
With Corado there, "I don't feel as frustrated," she said in Spanish. "Whatever it is, Jose tells us or sends a text."
Tanya Meyers, an English Language Learner specialist at Duveneck, said hiring Corado on a permanent basis has been helpful to families. Her own Spanish is limited, so if she needed to communicate with parents before, she would often go through district channels to bring in a translator.
"It was often somebody different," she said of the translators, "so it's been really nice to have the consistency of that one person so the parents can build a relationship with them and build that trust. When I communicate more sensitive matters to Jose and he communicates them to the families, I feel like it's more well-received because they do feel more at ease."
As Mendoza put it: "They have someone in their corner."
To Meyers, the parent-liaison program offers a long-needed, tangible step toward closing the district's achievement gap.
The district has "spent years and years and countless hours discussing the achievement gap yet ... I just don't feel like there have been concrete action items. This is something that is concrete where you are specifically addressing the need of the families and the students," she said.