Expanding ESOL Services Prioritize Personal Connections with Families
One in five West Des Moines Community Schools (WDMCS) students come from a home where the primary language is something other than English.
The district’s English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program supports over 11 percent of students with English Language Development services. As linguistically diverse student enrollment has increased, the ESOL program has expanded its services to reflect that change and best serve families. While each WDMCS student and family has unique circumstances and needs, English learners and their families may experience similar challenges as they navigate the education system.
Abdiel Quiroga, one of the district’s Bilingual Family Liaisons, has first-hand knowledge of those challenges. He often thinks about his own experiences as a student with parents who did not speak English to understand the students, families, and staff members he supports.
“When I applied for this job, I thought, ‘Oh, this is something I could do. I’ve done it my whole life, technically,’” he said. “My experience going through the school system is what I draw on to help families and to help staff understand what’s really going on in these homes from a personal standpoint, but also how that affects their academic life.”
To best empower each family to be advocates for their children and support their educational success, ESOL communication services come in four layers of support. A team of liaisons like Quiroga is that first layer.
“(Our) primary focus is on interpretation, orally communicating in different languages,” ESOL Program Director Natalie French said. “Interpretation allows families to ask questions, clarify information, and build a relationship with real people in our school district.”
The Bilingual Family Liaisons make those relationships possible. WDMCS employs four, full-time liaisons—three who speak Spanish and one who speaks Burmese Hakha Chin. The Bilingual Family Liaisons assist families with interpretation and translation (changing written information from one language to another language) in a variety of situations, often beginning with enrollment and registration. From conferences to reporting doctor’s appointments and explaining the grading system, the liaisons act as a bridge between parents and district staff, especially teachers.
“Families call to tell me their kids are sick or have an appointment or to ask me to deliver a message to a teacher,” Bilingual Family Liaison Belén Warnemunde said. “They ask for help filling out forms, during conferences, when they need resources in the community. … In the same way, I help the staff by facilitating communication between them and the Spanish-speaking families and help the teacher’s students when needed.”
WDMCS also provides translation support and contracts with community groups like Iowa International Center and Language Tech to support families and staff. A phone service that helps with communication in 180 different languages on command is available, too.
The robust services offered are important, but it’s the personal connections that are most valuable to both families and staff.
“One of the most important things I have learned throughout the many years working in this profession is the importance of connecting with our families and students by taking interest in their culture, traditions, and background,” Bilingual Family Liaison Rosa Pagán said. “Building trusting, meaningful relationships within the school community is essential.”