Edmonds schools bridge language barriers with parents

In an effort to help children succeed in school, the Edmonds School District is increasing efforts to reach out to parents who don’t speak English at home.

With a growing population of students and families whose primary language is a language other than English, keeping parents involved and connected can be a challenge.

Since 1989, the number of students receiving English language learner services from the school district rose from roughly 300 to 2,000. Of 80 foreign languages spoken in the school district, the most common is Spanish, followed by Russian and Ukrainian, Arabic, Vietnamese and Korean. Spanish-speaking students make up about 10 percent of the district’s students and that figure is expected to continue to rise.

“Research shows that when more parents are involved, their very presence at school sends a direct message to students (that) it’s important,” assistant superintendent Ellen Kahan said. “We want to support parents to help them have the skills to help their child.”

The district’s services for English language learners are designed to help get students up to speed, but it takes four years to become academically proficient, superintendent Nick Brossoit said.

The district takes a three-pronged approach to improve communication.

For families that need immediate assistance, such as their child is sick at school or staff needs to speak to parents about a disciplinary issue, they can use the “Language Line,” which offers an interpreter over the phone, or connect with “Natural Leader” parents who speak the same language and have been trained to help with interpreting.

Often, students speak more English than their parents and serve as an interpreter for their family. But school staff want to avoid that.

“Oftentimes we put kids in a position of having to deal with issues that aren’t theirs to deal with,” Kahan said.

When a situation can be predicted or prepared for, such as an information night or meeting, the district arranges for interpreters from Refugee Forum, a nonprofit from Everett Community College, and uses electronic interpreting devices. District officials have earpieces for those who need interpreters and plan to buy more with funds from a recently approved technology levy. An interpreter can speak into a microphone anywhere in a room and the person with the earpiece will hear them clearly.

This method is less obtrusive and more respectful to families, Kahan said. “There’s a feeling of disconnect and unease for people if you have to stop and start the conversation in English and in Spanish,” she said.

More long-term efforts include hiring more bilingual staff and to create an expectation with other groups that providing translation is a given.

In the schools, students are paired up with students who speak their primary language and teachers use visuals to help communicate, Kahan said.

Maria Garcia, the district’s Latina outreach specialist, said it would help to let more families know interpreting services are available. Also, Spanish-speaking families would like to be involved in helping interpret documents for the district.

Garcia said some families tell her they feel unwelcome at their child’s school and they feel disconnected because no one else speaks their language.

“The school district is making large strides to embrace parents, but there’s also a significant need for others to get on board,” Garcia said.

“It’s a learning opportunity to build understanding and trust.”

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