When Salem schools send home information to parents here, it's supposed to go out in both English and Spanish. Often that happens, but not always.
Now, school administrators are redoubling their efforts to do so as part of a new plan to reach out to Latino parents and get them more involved in the public schools.
"We're doing a lot with school improvement and parent engagement in general," said Mayor Kim Driscoll, who chairs the School Committee.
"Latino families want to participate, and we want them to be part of this discussion, too. ... If we want to be engaged with our Latino families, we need to make that as easy and as comfortable as possible. Translation is key if we want parents to be involved."
Last week, the city's newly formed Latino Leadership Coalition hosted a forum -- conducted entirely in Spanish -- to inform parents and answer questions on the pressing issues facing the schools this year. It was well-attended and productive, said Rosario Ubiera-Minaya, a member of the coalition and a Bowditch School parent.
The Latino coalition, an outgrowth of the Salem Education Foundation, formed this month and hopes to host two forums a month like the one last week, Ubiera-Minaya said.
"We felt that, as a whole, the Latino community was not informed on what was going on," she said. "... Our primary goal is to focus on the inclusion of the Latino community, to serve as a vehicle to share information and ideas, and to empower Latinos to have a voice."
Roughly 35 to 40 percent of Salem's public school population is Latino, a number that has increased within the last five years, Driscoll said.
In November, Bentley School -- the elementary school with the city's highest percentage of low-income students and non-native speakers of English -- was designated a Level 4 "underperforming" school by state authorities due to low MCAS scores.
Through the winter, Driscoll and Superintendent Steven Russell have spearheaded a districtwide turnaround effort, one component of which is outreach to the Latino community.
Ramping it up
In addition to distributing parent notices in Spanish, Driscoll wants the district to start translating School Committee meetings and agendas, and perhaps offer translation services at important school events, such as orientations or meet-the-teacher nights.
The city recently received a grant to purchase translation equipment and 20 headsets, which were used for the first time at last week's Latino Leadership Coalition meeting.
"For me, it's 'Wow, I can't believe this isn't happening already,'" Driscoll said. "Finding ways to break down barriers is critical, (to) make things easier, more comfortable. It's not always been that way."
In a related area, the district also needs to take another look at programming for English as a second language, Driscoll said.
Currently, English-language learners are pulled from regular classes for small group instruction -- a Catch-22 situation, Driscoll said, because they're missing classroom instruction on core content.
Julie Whitlow, a Salem State University professor who coordinates graduate programs in teaching English as a second language, is also a Salem parent who served on one of many committees involved in the turnaround process, and she met with Driscoll recently about the issue.
"I think the data has been there for years that ELL has been underperforming across the district," Whitlow said. "I don't think the issue has been addressed very carefully. The resources that are needed, until this point, haven't materialized. ...
"Both (English and Spanish) programs need to be strengthened and valued by the district and the community."
All teachers -- not just ELL instructors -- need training, she said, so they can make classroom content accessible to students regardless of which language they speak at home.
Whitlow said Driscoll was "very receptive" to her group's ideas, and Salem State has offered to collaborate on professional development for Salem teachers.
'The only Latina in the conversation'
Ubiera-Minaya spoke no English when she came to Salem from the Dominican Republic at age 15, but she went on to graduate from Salem High School and Salem State. She is involved with the Salem Education Foundation, especially with outreach, meeting with parents and groups across the city.
From the beginning of the turnaround process, it was hard to find an organized group in the Latino community that the schools could reach out to, she said.
"I noticed that sometimes I was the only Latina in the conversation," she said. "I brought that observation back to the Salem Education Foundation. I definitely noticed there was a void.
"There was a voice that was missing there, and it was the Latino voice."
The Latino Leadership Coalition was started to fill that void. In its first month, the group has about 10 active members. Eventually, the group could expand its outreach to issues beyond the schools, she said.
"This impacts everyone, no matter where you're coming from," Ubiera-Minaya said. "... We want to empower the Latinos to get organized as a community, have a place at the table and be vocal about the things they care about."
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