Summit School District increases outreach to Spanish-speaking families
Giovanna Voge was tired of being the bad guy.
For the last 14 years, she worked in Summit County in accounting and property management. The native Columbian said she didn’t like having to be a bearer of bad news when non-English speaking families faced financial and other troubles often stemming from or exacerbated by language barriers or cultural misunderstandings.
Now Voge, 37, works to help immigrants, Spanish speakers and others understand the school system and how to support their children. Voge started last month as the full-time interpreter, translator and family liaison for the Summit School District.
In her new role, she coordinates interpreters for parent-teacher conferences at every school, translates the district’s communications into Spanish and acts as a resource for families who might be lost or confused.
At an interpreter training session she helped organized on Wednesday, Sept. 17, she said she loves using her native language again and learning all about the school district.
This year, the district restructured its communications department and is expanding efforts to more effectively reach students’ families, especially those who might face language barrier challenges and are not well represented on school PTAs.
Voge reports to Julie McCluskie, the district spokeswoman who was promoted to a full-time position now called director of communications and community engagement.
At the training day at the district’s central office, McCluskie pointed to the roughly 15 people learning more about interpreting guidelines and said she was happy the district could bring together its interpreting personnel with a handful of Family and Intercultural Resource Center staff members and a couple Mind Springs Health employees.
In larger communities, outside companies provide language services for schools, she said, which makes it more important for those working in interpreting and translating for different organizations around the county to meet and share best practices.
McCluskie said the district now has a full-time interpreter/translator/family liaison in four schools and is trying to increase its number of on-call experienced interpreters to 12 to 15 people.
This fall, the district hired a part-time district-wide bilingual family liaison, Moraima Kelley, who will talk to families about their needs, reach out to all the local faith-based organizations and connect with parents at community events.
Moraima Kelley said she’s been involved with the schools as a parent for almost 25 years and has worked with the school district for the last five years. Now in her new role as family liaison, she attended an event called Dialogue Over Dinner at Upper Blue Elementary last week.
About 12 families participated, and a school literacy specialist talked to them about how to read to their children and get more involved with reading. Kelley said she was happy with the number of families who attended, and the topic was especially helpful for foreign-born parents who may have stopped their education to work when they were elementary- or middle-school aged.
Dialogue Over Dinner is a monthly parenting discussion that the Family and Intercultural Resource Center took over from Summit Prevention Alliance two years ago. This fall the series added a night specifically for parents of elementary kids.
Tamara Drangstveit, FIRC executive director, said she applauds the school district for making family engagement a priority and following through with the commitment.
When parents are engaged in their children’s education, she said, students are more likely to graduate high school and go to college and less likely to abuse substances or inflict harm on themselves.
“Large bureaucracies like the school district can often be overwhelming,” she added, and parents who didn’t grow up with the American school system might be unfamiliar or intimidated by talking to school staff.
Another resource the district offers families is called El Grupo, a monthly meeting at school that gives Spanish-speaking parents an opportunity to talk to teachers and administrators. McCluskie said the district is trying to start one at every school.
At Upper Blue Elementary, Kelley said, meetings have involved English and computer lessons. She has taught some parents, who likely don’t have access to computers or Internet at home, how to check their children’s grades online and told them the schools give people free access to computers before and after school hours.
Not all non-English speaking families are Hispanic, she said. She has visited with families who speak French and Russian as well as one from former Yugoslavia.
This Thursday, Sept. 25, Kelley will meet parents at Frisco Elementary at 6 p.m. for an El Grupo potluck and to chat about how to better meet their needs. She will also explain the role parents play in their children’s education.
In other countries, she said, people believe that it’s the teacher’s fault if a child isn’t excelling in school. Without the interpreters and liaisons, that cultural misunderstanding could lead to conflict.
Part of the district’s increase outreach has involved the Summit Middle School principal, Joel Rivera, visiting the homes of incoming sixth-graders before school starts in the fall.
The idea was to help kids feel more attached to their school from the beginning, McCluskie said.
“Connectedness is a driver for good outcomes for kids,” she said, explaining that the home visits have led to improved attendance, better grades and fewer discipline issues. “The impact that it’s had in the school has been just tremendous.”
The week before school started in August, Rivera and interpreters targeted and visited 40 Spanish-speaking families.
“The fact that we have a principal who’s willing to take time out of his summer, go into homes and talk to the kids about their hopes and dreams” Drangstveit said. “I give him huge kudos for that effort.”
Kelley said the visits benefit the schools as well as the families when educators learn more about their students’ backgrounds.
For example, during a recent home visit, Kelley learned that a family was concerned that the father might be deported soon. Kids can’t concentrate at school when they’re concerned about losing their parents like that, she said.
Rivera told the family that he and the school would help and support in any way they could.
“The families are like in shock. ‘You’re visiting me, and I’m not in trouble?’” she said. “They’re impressed that the school cares about them that much.”
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