When the COVID-19 pandemic first closed school buildings last year, parent Irma Perdomo fielded dozens of questions from Spanish-speaking families:
What days would schools be closed? How do they pick up homework packets? And where could they find food pantries?
This information from Indianapolis Public Schools wasn’t reaching families in their native language, Perdomo said, leading her and fellow parent Ana Delgado to become an informal link to Spanish speakers, translating announcements, dropping off food, and giving rides when needed.
“I wanted to make sure kids didn’t fall as far behind when families didn’t know,” Perdomo said, speaking through Carolina Figueroa, a bilingual organizer for advocacy group Stand for Children Indiana.
While 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 run into a wall when there is not enough bilingual staff. That, says Perdomo, leads to frustration or disengagement.
“There has been more of a focus and concentration on it,” Perdomo said. “But there’s more work to be done.”
As part of Stand for Children Indiana, they’ve been pushing the district to put in place policies that would add more bilingual staff to schools in order to better allow parents to engage in day-to-day communication, as well as open the door to advocacy.
It’s a goal the district says it shares, through both adding bilingual staff and training all staff regardless of language status on how to engage with the families of its 7,000-or-so English learner students.
While the gaps persist, Perdomo and Delgado continue to be a stand-in resource for parents in need of interpretation through a Spanish-language group chat on WhatsApp.
Parents ask about everything from spot translation needs to what days schools will be remote learning to where to find assistance with food for the holidays, Delgado said. They turn to the group chat not only when schools don’t provide information in Spanish — or when students forget to bring that information home — but also out of a sense of community.
“Sometimes it’s easier to refer back to people who speak your language and people you have built a relationship with, at least virtually,” Delgado said, also speaking through Figueroa.
More access for non-English speaking families also allows them to better engage in advocacy, Delgado said.
She first got involved with Stand for Children when her daughter’s school was becoming an innovation school. The group offered data and information in Spanish that wasn’t available elsewhere.
Delgado said the district needs a policy on “language justice” — or the idea that everyone should be able to communicate in the language they’re most comfortable with — that will address bilingual staffing and other supports for non-English speaking families and hold schools accountable in the future.
A language justice policy was a component of Stand for Children’s recent petition calling for more equitable practices at IPS, and has seen support from parents at district board meetings.
Perdomo also said she’d like to see a follow-up system to make sure no school is leaving its English learner population behind.
Since 2006, the total English learner population at IPS has doubled, and individual schools throughout the city have seen their numbers of English learner students grow by 150%, according to Indiana Department of Education data.
Of the more than 7,000 students identified as non-native English speakers, 90% speak Spanish, said Jessica Dunn, the district’s executive director of enrichment programs, which includes English as a new language services.
And while some of those students no longer receive English learner services, their families may still need communication and information in their native language, she said.
That communication was not as seamless during the pandemic as it has been in the past, Dunn said.
At George Buck School 94, for example, where nearly a third of students are English learners, families reported a language barrier with front office staff as they called for information or with questions, Dunn said.
The district responded in two primary ways: First, it implemented training for school secretaries on how to respond when non-English speaking families call:
Don’t hang up. Say “un momento.” Find someone who can help — Dunn said members of her team frequently answer calls from schools in need of translation.
The district also provided a document with pictures and phrases of the common reasons a parent may be at the front office, so that families speaking a language other than English or Spanish could be understood.
“It’s never that they don’t want to welcome families, it’s that they don’t know what to do,” Dunn said. “So we wanted to equip that first line of defense.”
Dunn said it’s difficult to quantify how many bilingual staff members the district has hired as its English learner population grew over the years. For some positions, such as world language teachers and bilingual assistants, proficiency in another language is a requirement; but schools like Arsenal Tech have also made it a priority to hire bilingual staff members into other positions when possible.
At schools with high numbers of English learners, bilingual front office staff is a priority, Dunn said.
The district also assigns bilingual assistants to schools based on their English language learner enrollment. Schools with at least 50 students have one English as a new language teacher and one bilingual assistant each, while schools with fewer have a part-time English as a new language teacher.
Those staffers may support students who they have a language in common with, as well as those who speak another language, and Dunn said it’s critical that they create an inclusive environment for all.
Candidates for those roles are frequently 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 searching for a bilingual assistant who’s fluent in Haitian Creole.
The district’s language needs often fluctuate based on immigration patterns to Indianapolis, Dunn said, and students who may need language services are identified through a language survey given at enrollment.
Historically, students were assigned to schools designated to support English learners — but the district has moved away from this system, Dunn said. Instead, with English learners representing around 20% of the district’s total enrollment, the emphasis is on enabling all schools to teach those students, with a newcomer school option for those who want it.
Classroom teachers can also support English learner students, even without a bilingual assistant in the room, through the practice of “sheltered instruction,” which combines learning content with learning vocabulary.
“We want to equip all teachers to be ELL teachers, because those practices are great for all students,” Dunn said.
Dunn said she welcomes future feedback 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 at its community listening sessions.
“We have always been cognizant of the families that we serve,” Dunn said, adding that the pandemic crystallized the needs of families who were affected by school closures and staff shortages
“It helped us realize we needed to make sure COVID didn’t pause the work.”