This was the feature article in Volume 17 of the Ames Community School District’s Amazing Magazine.
As the Ames Community School District is becoming increasingly diverse, a unique team of staff from Communications, Equity, and English Learner Curriculum and Instruction are bringing important messages to families in languages other than English. With approximately 58 different languages and dialects spoken in the District, which accounts for hundreds of students and families, communication that reaches all is the goal.
The Ames CSD committed to getting a process in place in August of 2020 by aligning a team and the tools necessary to ensure program success. Shaeley Santiago, English Learner (EL) Coordinator, plays a vital role throughout the process. One that is critically important as all schools are federally required to provide translation and interpretation services for families.
“I don’t think people recognize the extent to which it is the responsibility of the school to provide services,” said Santiago. “When we start thinking about what our desired outcomes are, it makes sense we would do anything to eliminate barriers.”
With the strain on school resources and the added challenge of greater linguistic diversity, it can be difficult for schools to know where to start. Ames CSD began translating district-wide emails and documents in the three most common languages other than English: Spanish, Arabic, and Chinese. In addition, the District has a list of interpreters and translators and is always looking to add languages that may not currently be offered. With over 20 dedicated translators and interpreters, some work directly with written messages. Others work with in-person communication, such as conversations between teachers and families at conferences.
“We know having an actual person to talk to, the depth of the conversation as opposed to just reading something,” said Santiago, “that is so much richer and more helpful for families to be able to understand how to interact with the school.”
There is much at stake with families who speak a language other than English and connecting with the District without any barriers. Missed communication might mean that students don’t get to school, whether it is a planned no school day or just not knowing how to get enrolled to start school on time. It could also cause misunderstandings with school policies or procedures, potentially leaving families feeling like they are left in the dark to navigate the District independently. Interpreters often make a personal connection with families, bonding over their own shared experiences. Jingtao Wang, a Chinese and Japanese translator and interpreter, volunteers in many organizations in the Ames area to build these personal connections and share her own experience.
“When I came to America 16 years ago, I couldn’t understand English,” says Wang. “I missed a lot of information, and sometimes I was upset just because of misunderstandings and the barriers between languages and cultures.”
The implementation of this process seeks to achieve priority number four of the District’s priorities and goals: clear and consistent communication to support positive and proactive community relationships. Part of that priority was to increase other modes of communication by providing additional information regarding programming and eligibility in parents’/guardians’ preferred language, including their first language.
“It’s about the parents and families feeling welcome and that they are part of our family,” says Santiago. “Not only do we want them to come to the school, but that they are partners with us in the education of their children.”
The current process for translating email communication has changed and adapted as the team learns more about the needs of District families. When an email is sent in English, the communications department also sends it to Santiago, who then assigns it to a translator. A dashboard was developed to track items as they were assigned. This tool also serves as the check and balance to be sure items are turned around quickly. Data is regularly studied to determine where improvements to the process can occur.
“The challenging part of providing translation services is ensuring that the meaning intended by the text is conveyed in the translated communication,” says Hiba Ali, Arabic translator with the District. “It sometimes requires looking up what specific terms and expressions mean in an educational context.”
Translators complete the communication in other languages within one to two school days. When complete, the communications department sends the email to parents or guardians in Arabic, Chinese, and Spanish who request communication in these languages. After success at the District level and positive feedback from families, translating building-level email communications began in spring 2021.
“After the District started this service, I received a lot of appreciation from the community,” said Wang. Some of the feedback she received included ‘I feel like I wasn’t under cover like I felt before.’ And ‘Now I like to check up on what’s going on because it is easy to understand.’
With this past August being the first school year that the team translated both building and District-wide email communication, the most unexpected hurdle was simply the volume of requests. Starting August 1, in just 36 weekdays, 91 different emails were sent. The result then being 194 total translated messages. That type of volume made it challenging to keep up with turning around messages quickly.
“Our group of interpreters and translators are an awesome, incredible group who are working hard and really see the value in the work they are doing,” says Santiago.
When communication is not email-based, or an interpreter is needed immediately such as in an emergency, the District utilizes RTT Mobile Interpretation. RTT Mobile Interpretation offers Elsa Lite, a mobile app that allows buildings to request live, real-time interpreters in more than 180 languages and dialects. Through the app, building personnel can contact interpreters to assist in the communication process on an as-needed basis. With Elsa Lite, parents and guardians can communicate with their student’s school just in time, regardless of their preferred language.
With the goal of implementing a communication translation process district-wide complete, the team continues seeking ways to improve further. Templating some translated communication has allowed for greater efficiency. For example, families can look forward to winter weather notices such as an early dismissal due to weather being delivered this school year simultaneously in four different languages.
“Hearing the automated phone messages in Arabic language made me feel very proud and grateful to be part of the district’s equitable approach to provide access to information to all the families in our community,” says Ali.
After many successes, what could possibly be next? According to Santiago, there are several opportunities. First, in addition to Spanish, Chinese, and Arabic, the District will be adding Vietnamese to translations. Second, the District would like to add multilingual liaisons. Translating emails and website documents has been a wonderful accomplishment, yet Santiago acknowledges there are some families who may have troubles accessing this information. In that case, having a multilingual liaison to bridge the gap and fill in information that email can’t do alone would only enhance services and remove barriers some students and families might experience.
“Education is about getting students what they need to be successful in life. Why not do the same with their family so we can have great partnerships?” says Santiago. “It’s only going to help improve outcomes with students if we are building relationships and helping to remove the barriers people may have.”