Last spring, Washougal resident Sandy Renner approached Jemtegaard Middle School principal David Cooke to express her frustration with the Washougal School District’s inability to effectively communicate with its Spanish-speaking families.
“When the school system calls, the parents don’t answer their phone because they know they’re not going to be able to understand,” Renner told Cooke.
Cooke then met with several Hispanic parents, who verified Renner’s claims. When the JMS principal showed the parents a list of district-offered educational activities and programs, they said that they didn’t have any idea that those things existed. They also voiced their dissatisfaction about not knowing how their children are progressing in school.
Cooke left that meeting with more questions than answers.
“There was a whole bunch of frustrations on part of the school system around, ‘The parents aren’t engaging and they’re not doing this and they’re not doing that,'” said Les Brown, WSD’s director of communications and technology, “but when you listen to the parents (they say), ‘You do all of this stuff in English, and I can’t find anything. I don’t know who to talk to.’ There’s frustration on both sides around this inability to communicate with each other.”
To remedy the situation, Cooke formed a group of WSD employees that is working to improve the district’s relationship with Spanish-speaking families.
WSD has about 400 Latino students, 15 percent of its total enrollment.
“We had a notion that we could be doing a way better job servicing this population of students and their families,” Brown said. “We said to these families, ‘We know that what we’re doing is not effective. We can see that there’s a lot of barriers to us being successful, and what we’re doing is not helping the situation.'”
The group, which has been spearheading efforts to translate district materials, improve communication methods and make the district’s buildings more welcoming to Spanish-speaking individuals, is already seeing progress.
“We were asking people to build a foundation, a path, but they didn’t even know what the path is,” Cooke said. “Now we are listening. There’s no more assumptions. Everyone is being involved and saying, ‘You know what? We have to change the dialogue here.’ The impact, it’s huge. We’re building trust in community. The access is getting so much better. (This effort) is probably my favorite thing that I’ve done since I’ve been in this district. It’s been such a joy.”
Renner, who works as an interpreter for a language services company, has acted as a “bridge” between Washougal’s Spanish speakers and WSD, according to Cooke.
Renner said that “the Hispanic community has been very, very grateful” about the recent changes.
“The (district has) made them feel important,” Renner said. “They feel like they really belong. I get emotional because it hasn’t happened in a long time. (Parents) call me and say, ‘You know what? They care. They really care. I think we can trust them.'”
In June, WSD began holding monthly “Spanish speaking family nights” at JMS, where WSD employees, with the help of interpreters, talk to Spanish-speaking parents about topics such as athletics and activities, parent-teacher conferences, college and scholarship applications, Running Start and advanced classes and kindergarten registration.
“We decided to have face-to-face conversations. No more of the internet and all that. We’re going to look at what needs to be addressed, and we’re going to sit with them until we get it done,” Cooke said. “The goal was simple – build community.”
WSD has contracted with Portland-based Columbia Language Services to translate its website, board of directors policies and other key documents to Spanish. The district is also promoting the fact that Skyward, its student information system, has a built-in Spanish option through Google Translate.
“The key word for these families is access. They need access to information, and we don’t provide it,” Cooke said. “If my kid’s not doing well in school, I know how to advocate. I just pick up the phone (to find out) what’s going on. I’ve worked with (Spanish speaking) parents who say that often their kids are in charge of the situation because parents don’t know how to access (systems) to find out how their kids are doing. We’re trying to work out how to address that.”
The district is also trying to make its buildings more accommodating for Spanish speakers.
“We’re putting up additional signage that offers translation in the form of posters,” Brown said. “We’ve coached the secretaries that (Spanish) business cards have to be visible within the service window and the vestibule. We have a tableau with 16 different languages, and a person can point at one, then use a speaker phone to loop in an interpreter to the conversation.”
The district has changed the way it’s reaching out to Spanish-speaking families as well.
“We had an honest conversation with the secretaries,” Brown said. “They’re frustrated because they call a house and nobody answers. We told them, ‘If you’re not getting an interpreter on the phone before you start the call, they’re not going to answer.’ The families told us that. We told the secretaries, ‘If you’re calling them, do a three-way call, get the interpreter first, and that way, if they don’t answer, you can leave the voicemail in Spanish.’ And you’re going to have to do this several times with each family before they start answering their phone calls.”
In the past, some Spanish-speaking parents have refused to fill out applications for things like free-and-reduced lunch because they were concerned about what the district would do with their information.
“They didn’t know if it was going to come back to (hurt) them when they went to apply for their residencies or citizenships or whatever they were applying for,” Renner said. “They were terrified. They want the best for their children, but they’re scared to try to get it.”
At a recent family night event, WSD receptionist Julie Ferguson told the parents in attendance the district isn’t using their information to hurt them.
“We thought it was great for her to be able to say, ‘You can trust us with your information,'” Cooke said. “They’re wondering how it will be used, and if will be used against them, and we don’t even think about that.”
The district’s translators have caused issues as well, Renner said.
“To be honest, (Spanish speakers) don’t trust all of the interpreters. They just don’t,” she said. “A lot of them interpret differently. They don’t repeat the same thing that you’re actually saying. They don’t understand it. A lot of (Spanish speakers) speak different dialects, so you have to say it the way they understand it.”
In that regard, the district’s efforts are greatly helped by the presence of Brown, who speaks fluent Spanish. He grew up in Prosser, a small town in the Yakima Valley with a substantial Latino population, majored in Spanish at Washington State University and performed postgraduate studies in Mexico.
“Les is a commanding presence, and he just takes over,” Cooke said. “It means a lot to them to have someone there that says, ‘I’m speaking the language.’ I’ve known Les for a long time, and he gives 100 percent in everything, but I can see his passion for this. This one really means something to him.”
Technology is also a barrier. According to Renner, internet access is too expensive for some of the Spanish-speaking families, and the Addy neighborhood of Washougal, where a majority of the district’s Spanish speakers live, has poor service.
However, “a lot more of them are getting more active and computer literate enough to be able to (get online), or at least start opening up and asking more questions about it and feeling like they can ask for help about it,” Renner said.
But thanks to the district’s recent efforts, the Spanish speakers are feeling more comfortable and better informed.
“The more they (gain) confidence with you, the more they’re going to reach out, the more involved they’re going to be, and the more active they’re going to be in different events in school,” Renner said at the Sept. 24 meeeting. “They will push their kids for more activities. They will push their kids to grow in school.”
According to WSD’s ends report, Latino students posted lower scores than their peers on Smarter Balanced Assessment examinations during the 2017-18 school year.
“They underperform their peers on standardized tests, they’re less likely to have graduated, they’re less likely to have gone to college,” Brown said. “Those are all unacceptable things. There’s no reason why their parents’ language at home should be such a clear indicator of their ability to graduate from high school and go on to college.”
The district is trying to find ways to reverse that trend. Cooke said that JMS has had success with “restorative circles” and presentations “on the power of words” to help students take responsibility for not only what they’re saying but how their comments are being received and interpreted by other people.
As a result, discipline rates for Latino students at JMS are lower than the rates for other students, Cooke said.
“Some of my Hispanic kids are very popular kids. They definitely blend in. They don’t feel that sort of animosity. When I first got there, the Hispanic kids were in one group. Now they’re starting to transcend into other social groups that are not Hispanic. Acceptance and friendships grow, and that’s where the bullying stops, because they’re completely mixing, and that’s really encouraging for us.”
Renner said that Latino students are being bullied less this school year.
“Especially the ones that have joined the sports — they are really feeling connected now because they’ve become friends with some of the people on their teams, and they’re really interacting now,” she said. “I see it, because I live (near a) bus stop, and I see them interacting now. It’s a lot different. Something is being done right, because it’s looking good.”