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How Meriden schools are trying to build trust with Spanish-speaking families

Cómo las escuelas de Meriden buscan ganarse la confianza de familias hispanohablantes

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MERIDEN — By his own admission, bilingual family-school liaison Angel Robles does a little bit of everything. His main job is to work with students, parents and schools to remove barriers that prevent students from learning. Robles splits his time between three elementary schools — Nathan Hale, Thomas Hooker and Israel Putnam — where he works with about 350 referred students.

On some days, his job means visiting a student’s home to sign paperwork or explain a school policy. On others, it means reaching out to a local church to find clothes for a student who lost their home in a fire. His job might also mean walking a newly arrived immigrant mom to her child’s bus stop.

As a Spanish speaker with Puerto Rican roots, another big part of his job is building trust between Spanish-speaking families and the schools, especially among immigrant families.

“Sometimes the [parents] fear this system. If the parents are not legally in the United States, there may be a little trepidation and fear,” he said. “It’s our job, though, to make sure that we let them know that we are here for the interests of the child. We want what's best for the child.”

Family-school liaisons like Robles work to share the resources available to the growing number of Spanish-speaking parents who want to communicate with Meriden schools. However, beyond providing resources to overcome language barriers, the district faces an additional challenge in building trust with Spanish-speaking parents.

The bigger picture: Parent organizing

This challenge became apparent during a parish assembly held at St. Rose of Lima on Sunday, May 21, when Latino parents shared issues they encountered with the Meriden Public School System and proposed a few solutions to overcome the obstacles.

Among other concerns, Spanish-speaking parents like Margarita León shared the difficulties they have encountered in communicating with the district. León is originally from Mexico and said she has been living in Meriden for 18 years. However, she said she had trouble communicating through the parent communication app ParentSquare. She said using the app was hard for parents who don’t speak English or don’t know how to use tech.

“There is a gap in understanding with how we communicate with our schools and teachers,” she said in Spanish. “As a mother, my biggest concern is the education of my kids because they are our future. Because of this, I am very involved in their education and their classes.”

This gap in trust is not exclusive to Meriden. Other school districts statewide encounter similar issues. Recent testimony from Spanish-speaking parents at a public hearing at the Capitol in favor of a “Bill of Rights” for English language learners and their parents demonstrated the many ways that different school districts in the state have broken the trust of parents who don’t speak English by not providing language services.

Although there are already a number of laws and requirements in place to overcome language barriers between schools and parents, the bill seeks to add safeguards to these rights – including the right to attend public school regardless of immigration status, the right of parents to receive school forms in a language they can understand and the right for families to have a qualified translator at critical interactions with schools.

The bill was incorporated into omnibus legislation that recently passed in the House and Senate.

Dr. Evelyn Robles-Rivas, Meriden’s supervisor of language and community partnerships, expressed support for the bill. She explained the state had seen an influx of multilingual students in recent years and highlighted parents’ right to receive the information they need in a way that they understand.

“Whatever we do, we have to put students first,” she said. “If language is a barrier, we really need to break those barriers and we really need to create a trusting relationship with the families.”

‘Communication is key’

Robles-Rivas said the district has a responsibility to build trust with the community and for parents to feel welcomed in schools. Outside of the about 1,500 multilingual students, Robles-Rivas said the majority of the student population in the district is Latino, making communication with parents even more important.

“I think communication is the key,” Robles-Rivas said. “It is extremely important that parents receive accurate information; that parents receive exactly what is happening with the child – whether there is a concern, or worries or a moment of celebration.”

She explained there is a clear protocol to resolve a complaint from a parent: take it to the classroom teacher, then to the school administrator or building principal for resolution. If the family isn’t happy or receiving a response, she said parents are welcome to call the Board of Education or the offices of the assistant superintendent.

Board of Education member Elmer Gonzalez has had meetings with advocates on this topic, listened and is working on ways to resolve the issue with his constituents, he said. He also noted that many parents didn’t know how to access the services already in place and a general lack of parent involvement.

“I’m in favor of increasing that involvement with my constituents,” he said in an email. “I see too often that minority parents are not involved with their kids and missed opportunities arise because of a lack of translation.”

‘Understanding theprocess’

Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning Barbara Haeffner added miscommunications often arise because parents are unaware of the administrative process behind resolving an issue.

“Sometimes it's just understanding the process. They [parents] just don't know what the process is. It's not that they don't know what to do, but they just don't know what steps to follow to get to the end result that they need,” she said. 

She added that there are translation services available for parents, including a language line for specialized meetings. She added that there are Spanish-speaking staff in every school and that parents can usually ask for someone who can interpret for them, even if the parent does speak some English. 

Haeffner said another asset in communicating with parents was the family-school liaisons, who are more approachable than a principal or superintendent. She remembered she started working for the district about 13 years ago, about the same time that the liaison program grew because of the need to communicate with Spanish-speaking families. 

“We all want parents to ask questions,” Haeffner said. “So if you have to think about it and translate it, you're not probably going to ask as many questions as if it's in your native language and you're resolving your issue and thinking at the same time.”

Family-school liaisons and chronic absenteeism

As a liaison for a few schools, Robles has been spending a lot of his time lately addressing chronic absenteeism. He said the focus is meeting with parents and finding strategies that address the reasons kids aren’t going to school.

“We meet (with parents) to work out strategies on how we can get your children to school,” he said. “You never want to deprive a child just because a parent is working 12 hours a day to try to make ends meet to support the family.”

Data show that over the past two school years the number of Meriden students considered chronically absent from school has increased, especially among elementary school students. Nearly half (47%) of all elementary students in the district were considered chronically absent in December, according to district data provided to the Record-Journal.

Robles explained a student is considered chronically absent if they miss 10% or more of the school year, about 18 days. Furthermore, the Department of Education found that students who are chronically absent are at serious risk of falling behind in school.

However, a recent attendance initiative among Meriden elementary schools is starting to show results. The months since January have seen a downward trend and data from April 2023 found that 18% of students are chronically absent. This is a decrease of about 30% since December, but is still higher than pre-pandemic numbers. 

Robles called the increased attendance a “team effort” between teachers, paraprofessionals, administrators and tutors. He visits a home, explains the policy and tries to work with parents to find solutions for the barriers that are keeping students out of school such as transportation, scheduling and finances.

“You could look at the news and see what goes on and the way some immigrants get treated,” Robles said. “I see that all the staff really cares about is that the child learns and that the child comes to school.”

Latino Communities Reporter Lau Guzmán is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Support RFA reporters at the Record-Journal through a donation at https://bit.ly/3Pdb0re. To learn more about RFA, visit www.reportforamerica.org.

MERIDEN —Angel Robles hace de todo poco. Como un coordinador bilingüe entre la familia y la escuela, Robles colabora con estudiantes, padres y escuelas para eliminar las barreras que impiden que los estudiantes aprendan. Divide su tiempo entre tres escuelas primarias: Nathan Hale, Thomas Hooker e Israel Putnam, donde trabaja con aproximadamente 350 estudiantes.

Algunos días, su trabajo implica visitar el hogar de un estudiante para firmar documentos o explicar una política escolar. En otros, implica contactar a una iglesia local para encontrar ropa para un estudiante que perdió su hogar en un incendio. Su trabajo también puede significar acompañar a una madre inmigrante recién llegada hasta la parada del autobús de su hijo.

"A veces, los padres le tienen miedo al sistema. Si los padres no tienen estatus legal en Estados Unidos, puede haber un poco de temor y miedo", dijo. "Sin embargo, nuestro trabajo es asegurarnos que sepan que estamos aquí para los niños. Queremos lo mejor para ellos".

Los coordinadores como Robles trabajan para compartir los recursos disponibles para el creciente número de padres hispanohablantes que desean comunicarse con las escuelas de Meriden. Sin embargo, más allá de proporcionar recursos para superar las barreras del idioma, el distrito también enfrenta el reto de ganarse la confianza de los padres hispanohablantes.

Un panorama más amplio: los padres se organizan

Este desafío se hizo evidente durante una asamblea parroquial en la iglesia St. Rose of Lima el domingo 21 de mayo. En esta, varios padres latinos compartieron los problemas que encontraron en el sistema escolar público de Meriden y propusieron algunas soluciones para superar los obstáculos.

Entre otras preocupaciones, padres hispanohablantes como Margarita León compartieron las dificultades que han enfrentado al comunicarse con el distrito. León emigró desde México y dijo que ha estado viviendo en Meriden durante 18 años. Sin embargo, dijo que tuvo dificultades para comunicarse a través de la aplicación de comunicación para padres ParentSquare. Dijo que usar la aplicación era difícil para los padres que no hablan inglés o no saben cómo usar la tecnología.

“Hay una  brecha de comprensión de cómo nos comunicamos con nuestras escuelas y maestros”, dijo. “Como madre, mi preocupación más grande es la educación de mis hijos porque ellos son nuestro futuro. Por esto, estoy muy involucrada en su educación y sus clases”.

Esta brecha de confianza no es exclusiva de Meriden. Otros distritos escolares en todo el estado enfrentan retos similares. Hace poco, varios padres hispanohablantes dieron testimonio en una audiencia pública en el Capitolio a favor de una "Declaración de Derechos" para los estudiantes de inglés como segundo idioma. Durante la audiencia, los padres demostraron las varias formas en que diferentes distritos escolares del estado han socavado la confianza de los padres que no hablan inglés al no proporcionar servicios de idioma.

Aunque ya existen varias leyes y requisitos para superar las barreras del idioma entre las escuelas y los padres, el proyecto de ley busca agregar garantías a estos derechos, incluido el derecho a asistir a una escuela pública independientemente del estatus migratorio, el derecho de los padres a recibir formularios escolares en un idioma que puedan entender y el derecho de las familias a tener un traductor calificado en interacciones críticas con las escuelas.

El proyecto de ley se incorporó a una legislación general que recientemente se aprobó en la Cámara y el Senado.

La Dra. Evelyn Robles-Rivas, supervisora de idioma y asociaciones comunitarias de Meriden, expresó su apoyo al proyecto de ley. Explicó que el estado ha visto un aumento de estudiantes multilingües en los últimos años y resaltó el derecho de los padres a recibir la información que necesitan de una manera que puedan entender.

"Sea lo que sea que hagamos, tenemos que poner a los estudiantes en primer lugar", dijo. "Si el idioma es una barrera, realmente necesitamos romper esas barreras y crear una relación de confianza con las familias".

'La comunicación es clave'

Robles-Rivas dijo que el distrito tiene la responsabilidad de construir confianza con la comunidad y que los padres se sientan bienvenidos en las escuelas. Además de los aproximadamente 1,500 estudiantes multilingües, Robles-Rivas dijo que la mayoría de la población estudiantil en el distrito es latina, lo que hace que la comunicación con los padres sea aún más importante.

"Creo que la comunicación es clave", dijo Robles-Rivas. "Es extremadamente importante que los padres reciban información precisa; que los padres reciban exactamente lo que está sucediendo con el niño, ya sea una preocupación, una inquietud o un momento de celebración".

Explicó que hay un protocolo claro para resolver una queja de un padre: llevarla al maestro del aula, luego al administrador escolar o al director del edificio. Si la familia no está satisfecha o no recibe una respuesta, dijo que los padres pueden llamar a la Junta de Educación o a las oficinas del superintendente asistente.

Como coordinador de varias escuelas, Robles ha dedicado mucho tiempo a el ausentismo crónico. Dijo que se enfoca en reunirse con los padres y encontrar estrategias que aborden las razones por las cuales los niños no van a la escuela.

"Nos reunimos con los padres para trabajar en estrategias sobre cómo podemos lograr que sus hijos vayan a la escuela", dijo. "Nunca quieres privar a un niño solo porque un padre trabaja 12 horas al día para llegar a fin de mes y mantener a la familia".

Los datos muestran que en los últimos dos años escolares, el número de estudiantes de Meriden considerados ausentes crónicos de la escuela ha aumentado, especialmente entre los estudiantes de primaria. Según datos que el distrito proporcionó al Record-Journal, casi la mitad (47%) de todos los estudiantes de primaria del distrito fueron considerados ausentes crónicos en diciembre.

Robles explicó que un estudiante se considera ausente crónico si falta al menos el 10% del año escolar o más de 18 días. Además, el Departamento de Educación encontró que los estudiantes que están ausentes crónicamente corren un grave riesgo de rezagarse en la escuela.

Sin embargo, una iniciativa reciente de asistencia en las escuelas primarias de Meriden está empezando a dar resultados. Los meses desde enero han mostrado un declive en el número de ausentes crónicos. Datos de abril de 2023 encontraron que el 18% de los estudiantes están ausentes crónicamente. Esto representa una disminución del 30% desde diciembre, aunque es más alto que los números previos a la pandemia.

Robles calificó el aumento de la asistencia como un "esfuerzo conjunto" entre maestros, asistentes de enseñanza, administradores y tutores. Visita hogares, explica la política y trata de trabajar con los padres para encontrar soluciones a las barreras que impiden que los estudiantes vayan a la escuela, como el transporte, la programación y las finanzas.

"Puedes ver las noticias y ver cómo se trata a algunos inmigrantes", dijo Robles. "Yo veo que todo el personal realmente se preocupa de que el niño aprenda y que el niño venga a la escuela".


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