For the nearly 1,300 English Language Learners enrolled in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools and families that do not speak English, the difficulties of remote learning have compounded existing disparities in access to education.
As families and students now meet teachers and peers over video rather than in the classroom, those who don't speak English can have a tougher time getting connected. Language barriers create additional complications as instructions for navigating educational software may not be in a family’s native language, and parents may have limited familiarity with the technology being used by the school district to conduct remote classes.
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There are already existing disparities for English Language Learners in CHCCS – for the 2019-20 graduation cohort, CHCCS had a 4-year graduation rate of 92.8 percent, compared to a rate of 70.2 percent for English Language Learners.
A support network provided by CHCCS, community-based organizations and the Town of Chapel Hill has yielded programs that are able to patch the gaps experienced by students during remote learning. Three semesters into the pandemic, stakeholders are working towards creative solutions to further support students.
How CHCCS is reaching out to families
From March through November, CHCCS saw upwards of 5,000 requests for translation and interpretation requests, peaking at close to 1,000 in both September and October.
Any school district employee with an email — a teacher, receptionist, custodian, administrator or other staff member — is able to request translations through the district’s online request form, Helen Atkins, the district's English as Second Language coordinator, said. Students can then reach out to any of their teachers or school staff members to have their translation needs met by the district, which she said encourages self-advocacy from students.
“Students can advocate for themselves or ask for clarification through their teacher, through their ESL teacher, and the ESL teachers, really everybody in the district, knows how to reach us very, very quickly,” Atkins said.
In addition, when the school system sends out district-wide surveys, interpreters also conduct in-person surveys at meal distribution sites in the community to increase response rates from families. Making that initial connection with individual families, Atkins said, is crucial to building strong relationships across a community.
Jeff Nash, the district's executive director of community relations, said CHCCS has full-time social workers who are able to get to know the families they work with and help identify needs during remote learning. As with the effort to conduct surveys in-person at meal distribution sites, he said, the district tries to adopt creative solutions as needed.
Atkins’ team works closely with several refugee agencies to meet needs of CHCCS families. She described receiving an email from a local refugee partner that was working with a Congolese family that was struggling to use the MiFi wireless hotspot device.
“And we immediately were able to, you know, through that refugee partner, get in touch with the family and get them help,” Atkins said.
Local organizations also provide direct support
Community organizations in Chapel Hill and Carrboro have expanded program offerings to support families and students who are navigating remote learning while facing language barriers.
At El Centro Hispano, the one-on-one tutoring program is among those that have been shifted to a virtual format, education manager Emily Metzloff said.
“We've been able to expand a little bit just because whereas, before we were limited to 30 tutors and 30 students in our actual facility, we've been able to add more students and tutors because they get to meet whenever they want,” Metzloff said.
Refugee Community Partnership has provided direct support to families through their Neighborhood Support Circles program, Elizabeth Godown, a Language Justice co-designer with the program, said. The program operates as a “pod" system, with providers visiting a few families each day to support students during the days of online learning.
“They can really see a change in the kids, how the kids are learning better, how the kids are doing so much better in class,” Rosy Moo, a Neighborhood Support Circles provider, said.
The Neighborhood Support Circles is funded by the Town of Chapel Hill for families with students in CHCCS, Godown wrote. Last semester, there were 25-30 students participating across 10 pods, and the program is hoping to expand its reach to 29 families during the spring semester, she said.
As students are entering another spring with remote learning, the school system will need to continue to develop solutions to reach families and students that face language barriers in accessing their education.
“As they say, necessity is the mother of invention," Nash said. "So we try to be creative and adapt as needed. It's hard. I mean, you have limited resources, limited staff. So it's a finite amount of ability for us, and sometimes it feels like an infinite need, but we don't stop trying because of that.”
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