WSD’s outreach to Spanish-speaking families pays off

Washougal residents Sarahi Castro (left) and Damaris Castro (right) provide support for students, including Sarahi's son, Daniel Lara (center), during a La Chispa session at Jemtegaard Middle School in May 2021. (Contributed photo courtesy of the Washougal School District)

Jemtegaard Middle School's Dia de los Muertos event, held Nov. 2, 2021, included an ofrenda -- an altar filled with offerings to honor deceased loved ones during the traditionally Mexican celebration.

Washougal School District Spanish-speaking family liaison coordinator Sandy Renner (left) and Jemtegaard Middle School counselor Kirstin Albaugh (second from left) work with students on a family tree project during a La Chispa session in May 2021.

Washougal Learning Academy Principal Jason Foster says he can already see the impacts of the Washougal School District’s outreach efforts to engage more Spanish-speaking families.

Foster, who helps coordinate the district’s outreach efforts, pointed to an event led by Jemtegaard Middle School history teacher Scott Rainey in early November that celebrated “D?a de los Muertos” (Day of the Dead), a prominent Mexican holiday in which people remember and pay their respects to friends and family members who have died.

“That probably wouldn’t have happened in previous years,” Foster said. “I don’t know if in the past the awareness of the holiday or comfort level was there. Maybe the movie ‘Coco’ helped just a little bit. People were excited about it. It was a really cool event because it signified a level of cultural acceptance and celebration of diversity.”

The district’s efforts to reach more Spanish-speaking families started in 2019, after Jemtegaard Principal David Cooke organized a group of Washougal School District employees who wanted to improve the district’s relationship with Spanish-speaking families.

Despite school closures in 2020 and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic restrictions in 2021, Foster said that group of employees has continued to expand and evolve.

“(Our efforts) accelerated during COVID because there were more needs,” Foster said. “I think if anything, we might have doubled the number of people we were interacting with during COVID. We just had to do it differently.”

The district now holds periodic “Spanish Speaking Family Night” events at Hamllik Park in Washougal to help non-English speaking parents navigate school programs and forms, ask questions and connect with local social services.

“I think the difference was being in the community as opposed to asking the community to come to us (at Jemtegaard),” Foster said. “That was one of the big shifts — we started serving the community.”

The school district’s Spanish-speaking family liaison coordinator, Sandy Renner, conducted interviews with Spanish-speaking families to find out what they needed and to make sure the district was responding to those needs, Foster added.

The district provides Spanish-speaking tutoring to help students who may already speak English but who have parents who are Spanish-speaking and may not be able to provide help with school assignments that are primarily in English. The district also offers Spanish-speaking peer tutoring and offers translated materials on the district’s website, social media channels, flyers and on its ParentSquare communication system.

Renner said Spanish-speaking families and parents have noticed the district’s efforts and are beginning to feel like their voices matter.

“I interviewed 47 (Spanish-speaking) families, and all of them said they are ‘all in’ now with the schools,” Renner said. “They trust the schools. They will not hesitate to ask for things that they need and won’t hesitate to volunteer or let their kids be ‘all in’ with everything. Before, they weren’t too sure if they could trust (the schools). Now they’re more involved in the schools, and they’re taking more action. I have parents who are volunteering and helping out in all kinds of different events, which they had never trusted to be a part of before.”

Renner has been the “secret ingredient to make the recipe work,” according to Foster.

“It wasn’t what it could have been until we brought Sandy in,” he said. “The thing that I’m impressed with is the number of volunteers she has found within that community. As soon as they were given an opportunity and felt like their voices were heard, they showed up to everything. I think that as soon as the community felt like the engagement had met their needs, they were more than happy to be a part of it.”

Renner is “busy daily with phone calls” from parents who need help with translation or getting in touch with their child’s school.

“They say, ‘I heard from so-and-so that you can help me with this,’ or ‘Can you contact the school and ask them if we can do this?'” she said. “Also, a lot of these parents need to (get to) work extremely early, 4 a.m. or 5 a.m., and can’t even see their kids off to school, so the district allowed me to be the person that (the parents) could call (when they couldn’t get their child to school). I’d go pick them up and take them to school, or if they needed to be picked up from school if they didn’t feel good or something, I’d pick them up and take them home. That really helped a lot.”

The district’s Latino students are also much more engaged with school activities than they used to be, according to Renner.

“Now, we have a lot more of the Hispanic kids wanting to be in sports — basketball, baseball, football, tennis, track and field,” Renner said. “A lot of them are very involved now in the band. They’re just really getting out there now and searching for a lot more options.”

Washougal High School counselor Melissa Walker has helped find grants and scholarships for the school’s Latino students to help them prepare for college, Renner added.

“It’s really been useful to have them know what’s out there for them because a lot of them didn’t know what their options were,” Renner said. “I know that a lot of these parents are really happy that their kids are actually thinking about going to college instead of just graduating and starting jobs. They can really see that there’s a lot more out there for them, that they can go further and do something with their lives and start careers instead of jobs.”

The outreach efforts are a key component of the district’s focus on equity, Foster said.

He pointed out that the latest U.S. Census figures show the number of non-white Washougal residents increased by 400 percent from 2000 to 2020, and that the Washougal School District has more than 400 Latino students, who make up 15 percent of the student body.

“Washougal is still a predominantly white community, but that is a large shift,” Foster said. “It’s going to impact culture and what schools look like and sound like and how they operate. We want to respond positively to that and encourage people to share multiculturalism and multilingualism. That’s the way to make sure no one gets left behind when something changes or becomes more diverse. If everyone feels like they have a seat at the table, it’s just going to be so much better of an experience for everyone. But if some people feel that they don’t have a place, that they don’t have a voice, they’re just not going to participate.”

Renner is working with her daughter to establish a nonprofit organization that can take “donations and contributions that are not appropriate for the school to handle,” according to Foster.

Renner hopes the yet-to-be-named organization will launch in February or March of 2022.

“A lot of the community members want to help us with it,” she said. “They’re waiting for us to start it so they can help in any way they can. … It’s been wonderful because there’s nothing better than the community helping out.”