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New Palo Alto school liaisons break language, cultural barriers

Parents say district program helps them connect to kids' schools

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.

Comments

8 people like this
Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 9, 2016 at 3:34 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

This is a wonderful program. The real pilot in the district of this approach was at Ventura Elementary School in the mid- 1970s under Principal Jerry Schmidt. Olga Thompson, originally from Honduras, saw the need for someone to communicate with Spanish-speaking families with children in the school, and did so, first as a volunteer and then while serving as a bilingual teacher's aide. Her caring presence was reassuring and helpful for a great many families and students, first at Ventura and later at Creekside and Juana Briones as school closures played out in the district.


4 people like this
Posted by J Owen
a resident of South of Midtown
on Jan 11, 2016 at 11:16 am

El Carmelo Elementary school has implemented a similar program, consisting of parent volunteers. Our new "Language Ambassadors" program represents 11 different world languages. At the beginning of the year we had a kick off dinner, for the entire student body and their families. The language ambassadors were present and able to meet with families who spoke their particular language in the home. The language ambassadors are available through out the year in person, and via phone and email to connect with those families, as well as answer any questions they may have about our school, or the community. We also have English speaking "Grade level ambassadors" for each of our grades. These ambassadors are available to all our families as well, to answer questions that new to the area families may have. To explain how the PTA and PiE work, how to register for after school programs, etc. We have found that these ambassadors are particularly useful to families who may move in to the school mid year. The school Secretary as well as our teachers have a list of all of the ambassadors and are able to connect new families with the ambassador who would be most helpful.

We are really striving to make sure every family feels connected at our school. This is our first year with both of the Ambassador programs, and they have been very well received!


3 people like this
Posted by Brit
a resident of Palo Verde School
on Jan 11, 2016 at 1:14 pm

This sounds like an excellent programme and definitely needed in our schools, particularly for those with their first child enrolled in school.

I would like to add that something similar is needed for all families where the parents have not been educated in the US.

As a "Brit", I would like to say that although my English is of course my first language, I still found it extremely confusing with all the jargon used in American schools that I was unfamiliar with. I am sure that all countries have their own jargon which doesn't make sense to anyone new to the system. Even when asking a question about such jargon the answer is usually given containing other jargon which doesn't help. Online searches also tend to use similar jargon which makes attempting to understand what a teacher, administrator or particular piece of information sent home or included in an email to parents means in plain English.

I would appreciate it if a list of particular jargon terms could be formulated for all parents, but particularly for English speaking parents from other English speaking countries such as the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India, etc., where these jargon terms are explained in simple, plain English.

Thank you.


2 people like this
Posted by stanhutchings
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 11, 2016 at 6:07 pm

stanhutchings is a registered user.

I was reminded of the parable " Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." and how it would apply to our language issues in schools: "Give a man a translator and you answer him for a day; teach a man the language and you give him understanding for a lifetime." (applies to men and women). So ESL classes (night or day) for the non-English speaking parents/guardians is strongly indicated, and they should be counseled to attend if at all possible. Perhaps the children could attend, too. No reason for US citizens to not be able to communicate in English, and strong reasons for fluency: "English (specifically American English) is the primary language used for legislation, regulations, executive orders, treaties, federal court rulings, and all other official pronouncements...". Emergency instructions need to be understood and obeyed. In an emergency, people need to be able to answer questions to allow responders to help them. Even visitors from other countries could benefit from ESL classes. Why are they not better advertised and promoted?


6 people like this
Posted by Look in the mirror
a resident of Addison School
on Jan 11, 2016 at 6:49 pm

[Post removed.]


3 people like this
Posted by Look in the mirror
a resident of Addison School
on Jan 16, 2016 at 12:01 pm

Here is the text from the PAO article:

(begin)
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."
(end)

It seems that we have a "specialist" who is not specialized at all, she needs to have the district employ another specialist who speaks Spanish. Spanish is the number one language served in the PAUSD EL program, you simply have to hire enough specialists who are bilingual in Spanish, and then Mandarin and Korean.

Here is more text from the article:

(begin)
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."

As far as the achievement gap, a member of the PAUSD team should never speak of the district as people in a different organization. All PAUSD employees, funded by the good people of Palo Alto through quite a bit of taxes, should be responsible for the achievement gap.

This all seems to comply with the Town Square rules, we would love to know why it would not.


Like this comment
Posted by Article
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 17, 2016 at 7:40 pm

From the article: "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."

PAUSD needs to refresh it's anti-bullying training. A basic rule or handling bullying is a school should not force a confrontation between the other child or the other child's parents. The school forced a family in a low power position (non English speaking) into a potentially adversarial confrontation with authority figures (school employees, teachers) and another family. The school needs to first figure out what happened and talk to parents separately.

"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 - ..."

This says the District still does not have trained translators, even though it is the law.

The liaison program sounds great for what it is, but should not be used to replace trained translators and interpreters. Liaisons are District employees and not a trained to be translators or interpreters. Who knows what their training is. Recall the District's crack Special Education law firm took a family to court for not signing documents which they could not read because they were not translated into Spanish, although it is the law they must be translated. After the judge threw the District out and told them to go solve this, suddenly the District was able to settle and resolve things with the parents. There is a huge power imbalance between non English speaking parents. District liaisons are not qualified to translate and interpret legal documents.


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