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Engaging Spanish-Speaking Families to Strengthen Edtech Implementation

Partnering with family liaisons to increase engagement and use of family-facing edtech tools

Overview

Edtech is only as powerful as it is effectively used, and tools cannot be effectively used unless all of their users have equitable access. For a growing number of students and families, language barriers may impede their ability to access and/or utilize edtech tools when resources are not provided in a language accessible to them. To meet the needs of all families, school systems need to provide their communities with supports such as translation services and instructional one-pagers in languages other than English. Further, school systems seeking to center equity in their practices must go beyond basic access needs and proactively work to understand and prioritize the needs of populations positioned furthest from opportunity.

Gill-Montague Regional School District (GMRSD) is a rural district in western Massachusetts serving approximately 850 students. In recent years, GMRSD has seen an increase in the number of Spanish-speaking families in the district, which has led them to actively seek ways to better engage with these families. Students learning English comprise 6% of their student body, and 10% of their students have a first language that is not English. A significant portion of the district’s families primarily speak Spanish. The district’s school information system (SIS) operates a family portal in English that allows families to check their students’ grades, see assignments, and receive announcements from GMRSD schools. However, district leaders noted a limited number of Spanish-speaking families registered and logged onto the portal. GMRSD aimed to strengthen the connection between their schools and Spanish-speaking families by finding ways to increase their access to the family portal.

Targeted Outreach and Training for Families Speaking Languages Other Than English

As part of the MA EdTech Peer Learning Cohort, GMRSD’s team identified strengthening the implementation of their SIS as their main priority. One strategy the team employed was to register the Spanish-speaking families of middle- and high-school students on the SIS’s family portal and further support them with logging in and navigating the portal. GMRSD’s Director of Technology Tina Mahaney partnered with their Spanish Interpreter and Community Liaison, Jimena de Pareja, on this initiative.

The district’s relatively small size allowed de Pareja to have individual conversations with families, whereas larger school systems that serve families with multiple languages may need to develop a more robust system. Regardless of a school system’s size, it is important to ensure interpretation and translation services are provided for any rollout of a family-facing tool, including instructions on how to access and utilize the tool. It is also vital to consider how families can access ongoing, multilingual support, which can be achieved through helplines, office hours, staff points of contact, and/or other supports offered in multiple languages. The MA EdTech Systems Guide discusses ways to engage families in the initial rollout and training processes around edtech tools, including webinars, how-to guides, community engagement events, and more to improve accessibility.

Intentional Communication Resulting in Stronger Family Engagement

De Pareja noted the immediate impact of connecting Spanish-speaking families to the portal. Previously, she would reach out to families primarily when a teacher expressed concern about a student's academic performance. Since more families have connected to the portal and have accurate, real-time information about their students’ grades, attendance, and assignments, families interact more frequently with the school and actively reach out to de Pareja, who in turn communicates with teachers to ask about missing assignments and share families’ concerns. This effect has also impacted the elementary-school siblings of middle- and high-school students, as families can now see all of their students’ information in a single, centralized location. Additionally, family engagement in school events has increased. De Pareja believes that more Spanish-speaking families have attended events such as Family Math Nights and Parent Conferences because they now have access to translated updates and notifications disseminated via the family portal.

New Opportunities to Support Relationship-Building

The increase in family engagement resulting from this work also provided opportunities for educators to develop stronger relationships with Spanish-speaking families. GMRSD saw an increase in teacher requests for translation support to send announcements to families, as well as a boost in requests from Spanish-speaking families for information about assignments and student progress. While GMRSD educators have incorporated many ways to foster community and build relationships with families, leveraging the portal provided one additional strategy to open up more avenues for connection.

For GMRSD, going beyond simple translation and portal access was always the goal. Providing these additional layers of support meant that a language barrier did not hinder Spanish-speaking families, and the district was able to achieve its vision for the overall community – to better engage families and have deeper conversations about academics, learning, and how families and schools can better partner to support their students.

Through a strong collaboration between the technology team and the Spanish interpreter/family liaison, GMRSD was able to better engage their Spanish-speaking families and successfully increase the connections between families, teachers, and their school. The district focused on providing targeted, multilingual support at times best suited to family needs, and honed in on the structures and supports families needed to be successful, ranging from technical assistance to translated resources to a designated, trusted point of contact. By actively centering equity and inclusivity in their family engagement strategy, GMRSD was able to elevate and address the needs of the families in their community who may not have been served effectively in the past.

Districts can apply similar strategies in their own context by considering the following ideas and lessons learned from GMRSD:

  • Hire and partner with staff that have strong community ties and relationships with families the district is seeking to better engage. Foundational to this work was de Pareja’s establishment of strong relationships with families, which enabled frequent, two-way communication. De Pareja collected email addresses from Spanish-speaking families which Mahaney used to set up individual accounts on the family portal. Throughout the implementation process, de Pareja was able to maximize her knowledge of the community to identify relevant resources and support. While individuals could log in to the portal from a computer, de Pareja noted that the families she supported had better access to and comfort with using cellular phones, so she focused her training on mobile devices. Knowing that many families she supported were farm workers, she also targeted outreach to families during the winter months when farms were closed to better accommodate their schedules.

  • Create a targeted outreach plan based on desired goals for connecting with families. Once family portal accounts were created, de Pareja set up one-on-one in-person meetings with families to help them download the portal’s app on their phones and learn how to access their accounts. She also demonstrated how to navigate different features on the portal, including locating students’ grades and assignments, and utilizing the auto-translate function to read district announcements and updates in their preferred language.

  • Forge partnerships between the technology team and family liaisons. A key reason this initiative was successful involved a strong partnership between the technology department and the district’s Spanish interpreter and community liaison. De Pareja noted that Mahaney’s team was incredibly responsive when there were any technical issues – such as passwords needing to be reset. The technology team also leveraged federal and state grants to provide in-home devices and internet connectivity for families, increasing flexibility and internet access for students and their caregivers.

  • Sustain ongoing support. Looking ahead to the upcoming school year, de Pareja and Mahaney are already planning how to ensure all new Spanish-speaking families register for the family portal, and are identifying ways they can gather feedback from families about their broader perspective and engagement with the school.