Editor’s note: In this second of a series of reports, the News + Record examines school equity in Chatham, looking specifically at the services the district provides for Hispanic students and families. Future installments in the series will provide a deeper dive into various areas of school equity.
Sitting in Jordan-Matthews’ auditorium nearly four years ago, Mexican immigrant Guadalupe Tavera remembers thinking, “My God, why don’t I know English?”
Her son, Ervin Martinez, was just about to start 9th grade at J-M, and the school held a meeting to inform parents about its requirements and curricula. While various school staff presented in English, a school interpreter translated the information for Tavera and other Spanish-speaking parents via translation headsets. Even so, Tavera said she didn’t understand the meeting.
“It was very fast,” she told the News + Record in Spanish. “(The interpreter) said a little, nothing more, just what little she could say before another speaker came and said something else. … I had a lot of questions, but there wasn’t time for them to help me clear up my doubts.
“So I felt, wow, overwhelmed because I asked myself, ‘How am I going to help my son?’”
Later, the Hispanic Liaison’s Selina Lopez cleared up her doubts. Still, that experience, Tavera said, stands out to her as one of the only times she felt disadvantaged as a Spanish-speaking mother in a predominantly English-language school system.
Chatham County Schools has more than 2,700 Hispanic students, according to the district’s May 2021 Ethnic Enrollment report, or 31.6% of its total student population. In the district’s Siler City schools, those numbers are higher: 65.5% of students at Siler City Elementary are Hispanic, 73.4% at Virginia Cross Elementary, 71% at Chatham Middle School and 62.6% at Jordan-Matthews High School, according to the same report.
In recent years, the district has increased its translation services, CCS’s Amanda Hartness told the News + Record, after recognizing the need to provide better access to information and services for Hispanic/Latino students and families. While many parents and students say they’re grateful for these services, others wish the district would do more, particularly when it comes to engaging immigrant parents and offering more bilingual resources.
“I know the district is pushing that equitable (lens), you know, sessions, professional development. I think that’s really good. I don’t think I see a lot of counties doing that kind of work,” said Jazmin Mendoza Sosa, Communities In Schools’ student support specialist at Virginia Cross Elementary.
“... We’re moving towards having that equity lens, (and) we are making steps toward preparing teachers, preparing principals, to continue guiding them to have more equitable tools and access to our families,” she said. “However, I think there’s some areas to improve like any other county.”
When Ángel Gabriel Rioz Ortega immigrated to Chatham from Mexico five years ago, he didn’t know English. Now a senior at Jordan-Matthews, he credits his ESL classes for teaching him.
“ESL helps a lot to be honest,” he said, “because maybe without them, I wouldn’t understand English or speak English.”
Neither of his parents speak English very well, so the district’s translation services help keep them informed about school updates.
“It’s very helpful because that’s how my mom knows how I am at school,” Rioz Ortega said. “There was one time that they called my mom and told her that I wasn’t doing that well, whenever I started high school. Well, right now I’m doing pretty good and she knows everything that I do over there, and they help her a lot.”
CCS provides Spanish translations for most of its messaging and news updates online and by phone. The district’s website also has a built-in Google translate tool at the top of the homepage to translate the entirety of the page. The district also expects administrators at each of its 20 schools to provide Spanish translations for schoolwide emails, phone calls and brochures at special events.
This expansion of Spanish translation services is a part of the district’s strategic plan for the last few years, according to Hartness, the district’s assistant superintendent for academic services and instructional support. Besides consistent translations, the district hired an additional translator, provided translation certification for staff members and purchased two-way translation devices.
The district doesn’t currently provide translations at its board of education meetings, which is something Hartness said she’s working toward.
“We just tried to be really intentional and I think that’s where we’ve made a lot of growth as a school district — just being more intentional with making sure that we’re meeting the needs of all families versus kind of leaving that up to each school to just do the right thing,” she said. “Like with anything else, there’s always room for improvement, which is like I mentioned, the board meetings — that’s something that we’ve got to address.”
The district also hired a third-party contractor to translate its EC documents and meetings. One such document is a student’s IEP — Individualized Education Program — which outlines a student’s needs, learning goals and plan, and can sometimes span as many as 40 pages.
Hiring a certified translator is especially important for meetings, where education terms and jargon don’t always have a direct Spanish translation. The outside service also takes the load off of bilingual staff members, such as CIS’s Mendoza Sosa.
When she first started working at Virginia Cross, Mendoza Sosa said she was doing interpretation for IEP meetings. Now, she no longer does, as the department has its own translators outside of the county and at the district’s Global Student Support Center.
“That’s a pretty big expense that we’ve taken on, but we’ve gotten good feedback,” Hartness said.
During the pandemic, the district added a 24-hour homework support line with Princeton Review in English and Spanish — a suggestion that came from one of the district’s family focus groups.
School social workers and the Global Student Support Center also connect students and families to community resources. The center is part of the Title III federal program, which seeks to ensure that any student whose native language is not English receives appropriate English instruction to learn and perform at grade-level.
The center primarily employs bilingual staff who connect directly with families and also serve as in-house translators for the district. Staff members help with ESL services and also assist incoming families with enrollment, paperwork and any food insecurity or homelessness issues.
“That’s actually a huge, probably one of the bigger resources that we do districtwide,” Hartness said.
The district also provides services specific to migrant students and families.
Orlando Hernández, CCS’s Title I/Migrant specialist, works with schools to ensure they explain to parents how school programming works under Title I, a federal law which requires schools to provide all children with a fair, equitable and high-quality education. Hernández also monitors the academic performance of migrant students and assists in creating academic improvement plans when needed.
In addition to preparing applications for federal grants funding at the local level, Hernández is also one of the district’s primary translators for districtwide messaging and materials, which was an especially prevalent need during COVID-19 school changes.
“During our monitoring visit this year, we got an opportunity to hear what parents said to interviewers,” Hernández said in an email to the News + Record. “They said this district sends bilingual communications to them as never before.”
He emphasized that CCS offers the same academic programs to Hispanic students that all students are entitled to receive, even if some resources specifically target the needs of Hispanic students and families.
Honduran native Carolina Torres still remembers a time when she didn’t receive the bilingual letters, phone calls and emails that she does now. Her daughter Maya — a 5th grader at George Moses Horton Middle School — attended Pittsboro Elementary School at the time.
“I can tell now, having a lot of years here, and with Maya at school, I don’t know if the Latino population increased or what it is, but they definitely do it different now,” she said. “I think now it’s getting better than it used to be… They are doing their job. But I’m pretty sure, like, it is not enough for the families to have the 100% as American families have.”
To achieve that 100%, various Hispanic parents, students and school support specialists recommend that the district hire more bilingual staff in key district and school positions, provide interpretation for more school events and ramp up outreach to Spanish-speaking parents.
By and large, parents and students say they appreciate the district’s and schools’ bilingual communication. But while some praise the quality of the translations, others question it.
Sometimes, Tavera said she finds herself confused by the Spanish used in school calls and emails.
“I don’t want to say it’s bad, but sometimes, well, I think it’s the same as it is for me in English. Maybe I say it backwards and they write it backwards,” she said, adding, “So, sometimes, I don’t understand what it said in Spanish.”
When that happens, Tavera said she asks her son to read or listen to the English version and then explain it to her in Spanish — something J-M sophomores Lilibeth Pavón Villalobos and Aylin Tepile said they sometimes do for their parents as well.
“They’ll be asking us what they mean and stuff, and we don’t even know half the time what to say. We have to look at the English one,” said Pavón Villalobos, adding, “It’s not the Spanish we’re used to. ... It feels like it’s what you look up on Google Translate.”
“It just doesn’t seem right,” Tepile added. “My parents are usually like, ‘What is this word? I’ve never heard this word, and I speak Spanish fluently.’”
Hartness said while most families are pleased with the increased translations, the district has received some negative feedback regarding literal translations, particularly when it comes to school jargon. For example, she said, “homework log” in English might be translated in Spanish to “homework stick,” which wouldn’t make sense. This can become a problem when the district relies on translation tools to translate quickly.
Spanish also has many different dialects and styles of writing from country to country, Hartness said, and so some translations may confuse families if they don’t match their dialects and vocabularies.
Beyond better translations, parents also said they’d like schools to provide Spanish interpretation for more programs and events. According to Torres, Tavera, and J-M students, not all school events offer Spanish interpretation — like award ceremonies, for instance.
“There are few events (with interpretation),” Torres said. “I remember that (the) PTA, sometimes they have this person speak in Spanish, and also the phone calls, but normally, for programs, no. No, you just go, and especially programs like Honor Roll, or when the kids sing or do specific things, it was just English.”
A few years ago, Tavera’s son received an award at a ceremony only offered in “pure English.”
“I wanted to know what they said to my son (in that ceremony),” she said, adding, “They work hard, and well, their triumph is that of the parents as well, and I would like to share it with him and know exactly what it was that he did to achieve that diploma.”
Hartness said ceremony and brochure translations “should be things that schools are doing” because the district “definitely has the services to be able to have that.”
But it’s not just about translating school announcements, documents or events, said CIS’ Mendoza Sosa; it’s about helping parents understand and navigate the system. She works with 45 students at Virginia Cross Elementary School, and about 41 are Hispanic.
“The school system is very complicated, even sometimes scary,” she said. “Let’s just say that your kid has a reading intervention. ... We can have up to five to 10 people in a meeting talking about the needs of the student, and the parent can get very overwhelmed, especially if they (never) experienced that even in their own home countries, or just overall their school experience was not like this at all.”
That resonates with Torres and Tavera, immigrants from Honduras and Mexico respectively. When Tavera attended her first J-M meeting for parents, she said she didn’t understand much of what the staff presented — even in her native language — because her own school experience in Mexico was drastically different.
In Mexico, Tavera said, “high school” is called “preparatoria,” and the school provides all students with the same curriculum, or “study plan.” On the contrary, most American high school students can choose their classes. Sometimes, she said, they’d have one teacher for all of their classes in Mexico, while here in the U.S., there’s usually one teacher per class.
“It’s very different,” she said. “The academic level from here to Mexico is very different. So, I wasn’t accustomed to these kinds of changes because I imagined, ‘Well, it’ll be just like in Mexico.’ No, just no. It’s different — completely different.”
Likewise, Torres said she struggled to figure out a lot of the programs the school’s letters home offered and spoke about — especially before her daughter’s school began sending Spanish translations.
“They sent me a note about AIG for Maya, and I was like, ‘What is this?’” she said. “You know, the Academically or Intellectually Gifted; it’s a program the school has for the kids that have some fast learning in math or reading, so I remember, they sent me this, and I was like, ‘What is this? I don’t have any idea.’”
She had the same question when the district came out with the superintendent search, too, and even events like prom. Not knowing the system as well as those raised in America, she said, is a huge disadvantage for Spanish-speaking and immigrant parents.
“The opportunities — I don’t know if they are the same or not, but definitely when you don’t have the knowledge of language and the knowledge about the system, it’s not an advantage for your kid,” she said. “Because families who know the system and know the programs, they are always looking for this, but for the ones who they don’t know, and they don’t have the language, they just send the kids to school.”
That’s why she thinks the schools should employ someone whose job is to reach out directly to immigrant families and serve as a liaison.
“Because you have the fear,” Torres said. “You don’t want to be the one who goes and says, ‘I don’t understand this. Can somebody help me?’”
More than that, she added, this person, or group of people, could inform the school district about what’s really happening — and why, perhaps, they don’t see as many Latino parents participating in their children’s education as they do American parents.
At first, Torres found she wasn’t able to volunteer at her daughter’s school or chaperone field trips thanks to the type of immigration permit she held.
“The school asked for a police report because you cannot be with the kids if you don’t have this police report,” she said. “So what happens when the parent doesn’t have papers, and is not able to, even if they want to? There are a lot of limitations for immigrants in that way.”
For others, the language barrier or transportation could thwart parent involvement. At first, Torres said, she struggled with transportation since she didn’t have a car.
“I remember my daughter asking me many times: Why can’t you go to the field trips? Why don’t you come to the Honor Roll (ceremony), Mommy?’” she said. “And I was like, ‘I promise I will, I promise.’ So sometimes I had to ask friends, and say, like, ‘Can you give me a ride?’”
Other parents, added Mendoza Sosa, may have to work long hours and don’t have time.
“Many Hispanic families value education,” she said. “They want their kids to graduate from high school. However, because of the unfortunately not livable wages, they have to work many more hours. And so therefore, many of them are at work, and their kids kind of have to be very self-motivated to continue and make sure they go to school. It is hard for parents to engage.”
Students, parents and others also said they’d like to see the district — and individual schools — hire more bilingual and bicultural staff in key positions. Some main office bilingual staff members, Mendoza Sosa said, are overworked and overextended: Besides interpreting parent conferences, they also answer incoming phone calls and help parents.
And that, she said, limits their effectiveness.
At Virginia Cross, she said, they’re “very fortunate” to have a bilingual data manager and receptionist. The school also has a bilingual social worker, Mendoza Sosa herself, plus three other teachers and a reading specialist. VCE has more than 500 students.
“We do have two pre-K teachers who are bilingual, one ESL teacher who is bilingual, one reading specialist who’s bilingual, but that’s it,” she said. “So we’re talking less than 10 people who are bilingual in a school whose population is 80% to 90% Hispanic. So I think there are some areas of improvement. That’s just with Virginia Cross itself.”
But the role also matters: only two social workers in the county speak Spanish, Mendoza Sosa said, and few, if any, school counselors are bilingual. Neither, she added, do they have bilingual nurses.
“And with COVID, nurses depend on bilingual staff to be able to track families if there’s a COVID situation,” she said. “So I would say one area to improve in Chatham County is having more bilingual staff in key positions such as nurses, school counselors, social workers. And again, that is an area to improve. I think they have improved over the years.”
Hartness said some schools looked specifically to hire bilingual staffers for positions, and in those cases, translation and interpretation services would be considered a part of the job. Staffers receive compensation if they write dual-language curriculum, translations or anything else “above and beyond the normal job,” she said.
Based on their classroom experiences, several Hispanic J-M students, including 9th grader Heidi Aguirre Moscoso, told the News + Record that they thought schools would benefit from hiring classroom interpreters to help newcomers who don’t yet have a good grasp of the English language.
Usually, in those situations, they said teachers ask them to interpret.
“I can help out teachers translating English to Spanish,” said Aguirre Moscoso, “but I don't really know anybody or any organization of translating.”
While most say they don’t mind helping, sometimes it can make them feel a bit “awkward.”
“I don’t mind doing it,” said J-M junior Leo Ortiz, “but it’s kind of, like, weird I have to do it.”
“I just feel like (there) should be like a teacher’s assistant that knows Spanish,” added Tavera’s son, Ervin. “For example, in my class, I have a teacher that knows exactly how to speak Spanish. So I think having more teachers who are actually prepared and know how to speak well, Spanish, can actually be like assistants and help people out.”
Beyond just bilingual staff, Mendoza Sosa said it’s critical that the Hispanic community have representatives at the highest levels of district and school administration — someone who’s not only bilingual but bicultural. Someone, she said, who understands and has similar lived experiences to the community he or she would represent.
“It’s not about just having a Hispanic name or a self-identified Hispanic representative,” she said.
But district-wide, she said she couldn’t think of any such Hispanic professionals in key decision-making roles.
“Representation in administrative roles or just, like, school district, I think it's important … that there is a voice to that community at a table that's always going to be there because they're always going to make decisions about the school system,” she said. “I think it's important that we do have a representative.”
The district began formally addressing equity issues through its Equity and Excellence for Everyone (E3) team, which they created more than five years ago. The team has representatives from each of the district’s schools and works to support students by eliminating barriers for student groups through using and providing culturally relevant resources across the system.
E3 team member Ricardo Valladares teaches 2nd grade dual language at Siler City Elementary. He’s originally from Honduras and has raised concerns for the Hispanic community at his school and with the equity team.
One big example is working toward culturally responsive teaching that acknowledges the different cultures of students — from language to food to discipline norms.
“I mentioned that culture is not just food or celebrations, there’s so many other things that come with it, and we as teachers, we have to start looking at those things,” Valladares said. “We have to go deeper, not on the surface level because if you only do that, you are never going to serve students as they deserve.”
CCS recently began its two-year equity training efforts with a group called The Equity Collaborative, which will involve staff training on topics like culturally responsive teaching.
CCS is forming a partnership with the Hispanic Liaison, Hartness said, with hopes to finalize a memorandum of understanding after its June 7 board meeting. The Hispanic Liaison has long supported CCS students, but the partnership will give them access to the building and resources such as Power School — along with funding that can potentially increase the number of services offered.
Hartness will also ask the board on June 7 to consider using part of the district’s COVID-19 recovery funding to hire an additional district translator that would work directly with Public Relations Coordinator John McCann to more directly engage the Hispanic community. Hartness said she hopes that position will be filled in the next year.
Valladares said he feels like the concerns he brings to discussions are taken seriously and that the district is headed in the right direction.
“I think every work in equity is necessary,” he said. “It’s relevant and it’s important. It’s an obligation; it’s a moral obligation. Especially for me, as an educator, as a minority, I have to make sure that gaps do not exist — not achievement gaps, not learning gaps. I need to make sure that they do not exist, and I think that every county in the state should be doing something about equity. ... And I think that if you can change one life, if you can make the life of one person better, it’s already worth it.”
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