Yessica Chavez, who sits on the Roselle Board of Education, a K-12 district in Union County, came from Ecuador when she was 12 and into the bilingual program at Junior High School 217 in Jamaica, Queens, New York. 

“It was just mesmerizing to me to come into a new world, and you start from scratch,” she recalled. “And you need to learn, and you need to communicate. And now what do we do? You’re forced to learn.” 

Chavez now has three kids in Roselle’s schools. She sees young students today and remembers being a stranger in a strange land, struggling to scale that language barrier. 

School districts across the state and their boards of education are minimizing the disruption for new and future generations of students and their parents. Reaching out to non-English speaking families requires coordination and constant work beyond ensuring parents get forms in the language spoken at home and having a translate option on a website. “Going above and beyond is not really above and beyond,” said Dr. JoAnne Negrin, supervisor of bilingual, ESL, world languages, and the performing arts at Vineland Public Schools in Cumberland County.

That means two things. First, according to Katherine T. Carey, director of assessment, data technology, registration, and school community outreach for the Washington Township School District in Gloucester County, the work will never stop. People move in and move out. Languages shift. 

“Every family’s worth it,” Carey said. “We can’t pick and choose. We’re a public institution. We educate all kids, we educate all families. If they can’t access us, we can’t educate them”

Second, and more important, this connection has to be personal. 

Chavez speaks from experience. Fluent in Spanish, she has seen parents’ eyes light up when she talks in their first language. There’s somebody that understands me. There’s somebody I can relate to. “It’s having that representation, making them feel,I can be a part of this,” Chavez said. 

Dr. Shawnequa Carvalho’s parents came to the United States from Trinidad and Tobago. They instilled the value of education. Carvalho, who was born in America, took heed. She became the first generation on her father’s side to attend college; the second generation on her mother’s. Now the assistant superintendent of human resources and chief academic officer for West Deptford Public Schools, Carvalho knows her path exacted a toll. She and her five siblings didn’t learn Portuguese, even though they traveled to their parents’ home country frequently. Assimilation into the American way of life mattered most. 

“Families should never have to dilute who they are,” Carvalho said. “Cultures, languages and differences are reasons to celebrate, not shy away from.” Families, she added, are partners and voices in their children’s educations. 

“Outreach is at the center of serving the communities in which we work,” Carvalho explained. “How can we provide the support we desire for our students if we don’t meet their families where they are and ask them what they need to support their child’s educational journey?” 

Taking the Initiative It’s up to school districts and their boards to take that initiative. Negrin has seen that in Vineland, a city with a large Spanish-speaking population — mostly from Puerto Rico and increasingly from southern Mexico, specifically Oaxaca. About 70% of English learners in New Jersey cite Spanish as their first language, Negrin said. In Vineland it’s “more like 90%.” 

“Very often, (ELL) parents don’t speak either because they’re afraid to or because they trust us to make the right decisions, much more so than American parents do,” she said. “American parents are more consumers of education in that way. A lot of my immigrant parents are really trusting us with their most precious possession, so it’s really unusual to have parents who are willing to come up and speak. It’s important for us to make sure that if they want to express themselves in that way, if they want to have a voice, that they’re welcome and that we make sure we do everything possible to facilitate that.”

Board of education meetings at Vineland are available with Spanish subtitles on YouTube from The Latino Spirit. The good news is that Vineland, said Negrin, has a board that reflects its community — a member can translate if a Spanish speaker has a question. 

“It’s really nice to have these families be able to go up and speak at the podium without fear,” she said. 

If a board lacks familiarity with a second tongue, being present and helpful goes a long way. Roselle’s board of education holds “Resource Nights,” which give parents information on such matters like paying their electric bill or getting groceries. Chavez said notices for one in late April went out in three different languages. When she attends Vineland’s state-required bilingual advisory committee meetings, Negrin leaves a stack of business cards next to the sign-in sheet. Parents, she said, consider them a “golden ticket” to call with problems or questions. 

Board members need to be “visible and accessible” beyond their regularly scheduled meetings, so that English language learner parents recognize them and know their role, Negrin said. The board of education is a mostly American creation, she said. In most places outside the United States, education is centralized, set by a ministry of education. 

“The board is there to represent and be the voice of the community, and this means all families,” Carvalho said. Boards need to ask their administrations about its “supports and practices” to support ELL students and their families, Carvalho said, and then address them with colleagues and administration officials.

There’s a tendency, Negrin said, for board members to only listen to constituents in their socio-economic class, even with immigrant families. They must understand who’s in the community, what programs are available, and what their role is in facilitating that connection. 

How Boards Can Make an Impact Board of education members can make a difference. 

In the Camden City School District in Camden County, board member Falio Leyba-Martinez provided information to collaborate with the Camden Education Foundation on a partnership with ImmSchool, a nonprofit that works to make schools more inclusive for immigrant and nondocumented students and their families. That process, said Camden Superintendent Katrina T. McCombs, includes “targeted professional development workshops” for everyone from central office staff to parents, to better serve the needs of that population in city schools. 

“The board has approved Resolution-Safe and Supportive Learning Environment-Immigrant Status, which ensures the district’s commitment to creating a safe and supportive learning environment for all students regardless of immigrant status,” McCombs added. That’s in addition to the bilingual department staff updating board members on its initiatives with immigrant families and inviting them to attend related events. 

It’s “vital,” Carvalho said, to ask families what methods of outreach work best and what can be improved. 

Districts are backing up their talk with action. In Washington Township, teachers run bimonthly parent advisory council meetings to get input from parents on programming and communication, said ESL Supervisor Kayla Berry. Its registration office has computers with scanners and internet access, allowing ELL parents to complete forms in a language other than English. “It makes people feel a little bit more welcome,” Carey said. Aside from offering interpreters for parent meetings within 24 to 48 hours, next year Washington Township Public Schools plans to implement a system so phone calls can be made home with an immediate interpreter, Berry said. 

The annual cost of translating forms for the district can run into tens of thousands of dollars, Carey said, but it’s worth the investment to establish communication. Online registration is now available in English, Arabic, Gujarati, Pashto, Spanish, Urdu and Vietnamese. Chinese, Hindi, Haitian-Creole, Russian and Tagalog are up for next year. 

“We are the first department that a parent or a family meets in the district,” Carey said. “Obviously, we want that to be welcoming.” 

Like many schools, West Deptford in Gloucester County has a home language survey for students who register, the first step in an inclusive process. The registrar then immediately notifies the ESL teacher so they “can contact the family and start building a relationship with them,” Carvalho said. 

“Language and culture are inextricably linked, and this is important to remember when communicating with families,” she said. “We have a network of ELL families to support new families, and we leverage our network to open the lines of communication and trust.” 

That relationship requires money and maintenance. Lots and lots of maintenance. 

The information gets updated with the district and the state, Carey said. Washington Township uses PowerSchool as its student information database, which requires training. If PowerSchool gets updated or the state changes its data, there is a ripple effect that has to be accounted for. But it’s a necessity. The same is true for a multi-pronged communication outreach. “We never send anything out once, and we never use just one means to send it out,” Carey said. “We’re emailing. We’re putting it on our social media. We’re putting it on our website. We’re sending text messages. We’re sending voice phone calls.” 

West Deptford conducts “consistency checks” to ensure it has the right contact information. “We recognize that families could be new to the country, and sometimes housing and financial status fluctuates,” Carvalho said. “It’s a privilege to have a cell phone contract, but some families are month-to-month and use disposable phones.” 

Communication Is Key Communication in the school can’t be overlooked. Technology only goes so far. 

Though Google Translate can help teachers bridge the communications gap with students and their guardians, it has shortcomings — for example, “tan cat” in Spanish becomes “cat with a suntan” in English. A word that’s acceptable for one Spanish-speaking population is confrontational for another. Negrin recalled ELL parents wanting to move their children from a class because the teacher was mean. She was shocked. 

The teacher was “the sweetest person ever,” but a difference in the dialects’ “politeness strategies” caused a rift. (In her experience, Negrin said Puerto Ricans are direct in their conversation; Mexicans are “almost painfully polite.”) 

“A warm, family-friendly, and student-focused environment is created in schools by employing staff that can communicate with students and families,” McCombs said. 

Negrin said creating that environment requires a conscious effort, including hiring strategically to ensure schools’ staffs reflect the populations they serve. 

“It’s not just a question of bilingual teachers or do you need ESL teachers,” she explained. “But it’s also, do you have someone on your front office staff? Do you have a guidance counselor who speaks the language? Do you have a nurse who can speak the language? A lot of times school districts tend to be parochial. We tend to hire our insiders, so you need to really look critically at whether that practice is giving you all the tools that you need to really be able to work effectively with the population that you serve.” 

School districts need to have spaces allocated for assets for ELL students and their families. On Camden’s docket, said McCombs, is a welcome center to provide immigrant families and undocumented youth with “resources and personnel” to handle “their new community and learning environment.” Participants can register for school, learn about community partnerships, and take adult literacy workshops. 

The adjustment can’t come at the expense of a family’s cultural values. There’s a subconscious tendency, Negrin said, to look at these newcomers as “less than, because they don’t fit the paradigm of the traditional student, the American family.” Everyone in the school district must foster an environment that “sees those students” and the expertise and experiences they have that can enrich the community. 

“I can’t underestimate how important it is to understand and address inequities within our schools,” Carvalho said. “When we do this work, we find invaluable information and insights into families’ cultures or home situations.” 

“This particular population of students and families is not going to come to you,” Negrin said. “They’re not going to complain. They’re not going to self-advocate necessarily, so it’s up to us that we are knowledgeable about what they should be receiving and making sure that they have a seat at the table. Sometimes that just means pulling a seat out, pointing to it, and saying, ‘Come sit down.’ If you can get them used to the expectation that they’re wanted there, that they’re expected there, then you’re going to see people become more expressive and more participatory.” 

The objective with this outreach is very simple.

“At the end of the day,” Chavez said, “we’re all here, we all live in the same world, and we all need to be one.” 

Pete Croatto is a writer and author whose work has appeared in many publications, including The New York Times, AARP the Magazine, New Jersey Monthly and The Toronto Star.