Community liaisons can bridge gaps in understanding

The New York Times reports one story from an affluent school district in East Hampton, N.Y., saying three suicides in three years, all by Hispanic students at the high school, and changing student demographics have prompted school officials to reach out to the Hispanic community. And when they reached out by hiring a community liaison officer, two sides of our triangle of school engagement discovered they didn’t understand each other.

That the East Hampton community was experiencing problems in communication with an increasing Hispanic population in the district came as no big surprise to us. We reported back in August that a new Illinois law would form “parent academies” in school districts to foster more constructive dialog between schools and their Spanish-speaking communities. The East Hampton Union Free School District hired Ana Núñez, 23, for this purpose. She’s a former student and an Ecuadorean who had won a scholarship to Columbia University and graduated with a degree in economics and political science.

According to Ms Núñez, parents of Ecuadorean students, for example, couldn’t understand the grading system, since students in Ecuador are graded on a scale from 1 to 20, with 20 being the highest. When their sons and daughters came home with a mark of 60, they thought that was great, but it really means failure. Another mother knew her daughter was on the “high honor roll” but couldn’t explain what that meant, the Times reported. When she found out, she cried.

On the other side, parents were taking their students out of school during the winter, quite often it appears, to visit their home countries. Not knowing what else to do, teachers would provide students with assignments they should work on during their extended absence, which parents interpreted as a “thumbs up” signal for the practice from the school. Doing this would be unacceptable in Ecuador, Ms Núñez told the Times, evidence of misunderstanding between the schools and a Spanish-speaking community.

We bring you this wonderful story of “resilience” as an example of what seems to work in America’s great schools. As another example, one parent honored by Maryland’s annual Parent Involvement Matters Award, Aurelia Martinez, volunteers at Woodson Elementary School in Somerset County. She works as an interpreter for Hispanic families and shares resources, which has led to better prepared Latino students.

Perhaps New York and other states where integrating students whose families speak a foreign language is becoming increasingly important should consider laws like the one enacted in Illinois in order to codify and encourage this practice at all their schools. Either that, or reach out and look for volunteers.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more biographical information, see the About page.