IPS parents want more support for bilingual families after pandemic
When the COVID-19 pandemic first closed school buildings last year, parent Irma Perdomo answered dozens of questions from Spanish-speaking families:
What days would the schools be closed? How do they collect the homework packages? And where could they find pantries?
This information from public schools in Indianapolis was not reaching families in their native language, said Perdomo, which led her and another mother, Ana Delgado, to become an informal link with Spanish speakers, translate announcements, drop off food and take walks when needed.
âI wanted to make sure that the kids don’t fall so behind when families don’t know it,â said Perdomo, speaking through Carolina Figueroa, a bilingual organizer with advocacy group Stand for Children Indiana .
As IPS has made strides during the pandemic years to reach more non-English speaking families, including adding translation services to board meetings, Perdomo and Delgado say the district needs to do more.
Right now, Spanish-speaking parents who want to report absences, call the school nurse, or talk to their child’s teachers are hitting a wall when there aren’t enough bilingual staff. This, says Perdomo, leads to frustration or disengagement.
âThere has been more attention and focus on it,â Perdomo said. “But there is still work to be done.”
As part of Stand for Children Indiana, they pushed the district to put in place policies that would add more bilingual staff to schools to better enable parents to engage in day-to-day communication, as well as ‘open the door to advocacy.
This is a goal the district says it shares, both by adding bilingual staff and by training all staff, regardless of language status, on how to engage with the families of its some 7,000 students learning. english.
While the gaps persist, Perdomo and Delgado continue to be an alternate resource for parents needing interpretation via a Spanish group chat on WhatsApp.
Parents are asking for everything from on-site translation needs to days when schools are in distance learning to where to find help with food for the holidays, Delgado said. They turn to group chat not only when schools don’t provide information in Spanish – or when students forget to take that information home – but also out of a sense of community.
âSometimes it’s easier to refer to people who speak your language and to people you’ve established a relationship with, at least virtually,â Delgado said, also speaking via Figueroa.
Better access for non-English speaking families also allows them to better engage in advocacy, Delgado said.
She first became involved with Stand for Children when her daughter’s school became a school of innovation. The group offered data and information in Spanish that was not available elsewhere.
Delgado said the district needs a policy on “linguistic justice” – or the idea that everyone should be able to communicate in the language they are most comfortable with – that will deal with bilingual staff and other supports for non-English speaking families and will hold schools accountable in the future.
A language justice policy was a component of the recent Stand for Children petition calling for fairer practices at IPS, and received parental support at district council meetings.
Perdomo also said she would like to see a tracking system to ensure that no school leaves behind its population of English learners.
Since 2006, the total population of English learners at IPS has doubled and individual schools in the city have seen their number of English learners increase by 150%, according to data from the Department of Education of Indiana.
Of more than 7,000 students identified as non-English speakers, 90% speak Spanish, said Jessica Dunn, executive director of district enrichment programs, which includes English as a New Language services.
And although some of those students no longer receive English language learning services, their families may still need communications and information in their native language, she said.
That communication has not been as transparent during the pandemic as it has in the past, Dunn said.
At George Buck 94 School, for example, where nearly a third of students learn English, families reported a language barrier with front desk staff when they called for information or to ask questions. , Dunn said.
The district has responded in two main ways: First, it has set up training for school secretaries on how to respond when non-English speaking families call:
Do not hang up. Say âun momentoâ. Find someone who can help – Dunn said his team members frequently answer calls from schools in need of translation.
The district also provided a handout with pictures and phrases of common reasons a parent may be at the front office, so families speaking a language other than English or Spanish can be understood.
âIt’s never that they don’t want to welcome families, it’s that they don’t know what to do,â Dunn said. “So we wanted to equip this first line of defense.”
Dunn said it is difficult to quantify the number of bilingual staff the district has hired, as its population of English learners has grown over the years. For some positions, such as world language teachers and bilingual assistants, fluency in another language is a requirement; but schools like Arsenal Tech have also made it a priority to hire bilingual staff members in other positions when possible.
In schools with large numbers of English learners, bilingual front desk staff is a priority, Dunn said.
The district also assigns bilingual assistants to schools based on their enrollment in English. Schools with 50 or more students each have an English teacher as a new language teacher and a bilingual assistant, while schools with fewer students have a part-time English teacher as the new language teacher.
These staff members can support students with whom they have one language in common, as well as those who speak another language, and Dunn said it is essential that they create an inclusive environment for all.
Applicants for these positions are often in high demand: they must demonstrate proficiency in English as well as another language, and pass the ParaPro assessment for paraprofessional certification, Dunn said. The district is currently looking for a bilingual assistant fluent in Haitian Creole.
The district’s language needs often fluctuate based on immigration patterns in Indianapolis, Dunn said, and students who may need language services are identified through a language survey taken during enrollment.
Historically, students were assigned to schools designated to support English learners – but the district has moved away from that system, Dunn said. Instead, with English learners making up around 20% of the district’s total enrollment, the focus is on making it possible for all schools to teach these students, with a school option for newcomers. arrivals for those who wish.
Classroom teachers can also help students learning English, even without a bilingual assistant in the classroom, through the practice of ‘sheltered instruction’, which combines learning content with vocabulary learning.
âWe want to equip all teachers to be ELL teachers because these practices are great for all students,â Dunn said.
Dunn said she welcomes future comments from bilingual families and expects the work catalyzed by the pandemic to continue. When the district asked for feedback on its current and future needs, it offered interpreters and translators during its community listening sessions.
âWe have always been aware of the families we serve,â Dunn said, adding that the pandemic has crystallized the needs of families affected by school closings and staff shortages.
âIt helped us realize that we need to make sure COVID doesn’t disrupt work. ”