Stephanie Fordice is the communications coordinator for Cook County School District 130 in Blue Island and a member of the Illinois chapter of the National School Public Relations Association.
Imagine moving to a foreign country with your family. On the first day of school, your child is filled with excitement and nervous energy but with the very first step on to campus you feel lost. All of the building signage is in a foreign language, parents around you are conversing in a foreign tongue and once inside the school, you are greeted by staff who do not speak your language. Feeling unwelcome and uncomfortable, you don’t know where to begin and think to yourself, “ how am I going to help my child succeed when the school is not communicating with me?”
Similar scenarios are played out across the United States on a regular basis. Today’s America is not just a melting pot, but a stew of ever increasingly complex issues that face schools, including how to serve the needs of a culturally and linguistically diverse community. At Cook County School District 130, we serve portions of the communities of Blue Island, Alsip, Crestwood, and Robbins in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. With over 4,000 students attending our schools, 59.5 percent are Hispanic and for many, the primary language spoken in the home is Spanish. As a primarily low-income district, we needed to find a way to address the multilingual needs of our community and effectively communicate with them so our message isn’t lost in translation.
The following topics are a guide that District 130 has followed and other districts and boards should consider when tailoring a communications program that reflects the needs of their multilingual and diverse communities:
Let’s talk translations
With Spanish being spoken in many District 130 homes, it cannot be stressed enough that proper translation is the key to reaching our audience. We need to ensure that our translations do not look careless or are translated incorrectly and end up being offensive. Whether we choose to use a staff member, consultant or translation company, we make certain that our translations are done properly as many languages contain various dialects.
When hosting parent meetings or utilizing a PowerPoint presentation, a translator should be available and PowerPoint slides translated. District’s phone system should also be set up to include an option of another language when parents call district office or their child’s school.
Overall, school districts can create a welcoming environment by making signs and other documents available in other languages. Recruiting and retaining a diverse, multilingual staff will also help in creating a welcoming environment for both students and parents. That also means paying close attention to what is being distributed and that English and translated materials get into the correct hands. Translation should not be the only tactic used to communicate with diverse audiences. Differentiating strategies and tactics is just as imperative as differentiation in the classroom.
While planning our district newsletter, design was an issue addressed the first day we met with our printer. We chose to incorporate English and Spanish in the same newsletter that is mailed out to all households on a quarterly basis. Another option to consider: a Spanish insert or separate English and Spanish newsletters. When designing publications, it is important to keep in mind that not all languages read from left to right. As the popularity of e-newsletters increases, an issue that has come to our attention is that many of our parents, both English and Spanish speaking, do not have regular access to a computer, nor do they have an email address. Having a beautiful e-newsletter that parents cannot access is not an effective way to reach the audience. That makes it imperative to know the community before choosing which type of newsletter best serves their needs. Our school newsletters are also translated into Spanish to ensure important information is reaching parents. Other publications including brochures, fliers, parent handbooks, calendars, and annual reports should also be available in other languages.
One of the most visible communication vehicles is the district website and it needs to incorporate a translation function such as Google Translate. At District 130, we also post important documents in both English and Spanish and often times have certain headings and banners translated while other districts may opt to have separate sections on their website for parents who speak a language other than English. Another important aspect for the website, as well as any collateral materials, is to ensure that photos and images accurately reflect the diverse student population.
At District 130, we frequently use online surveys. Initially, we used separate English and Spanish surveys. After realizing the data would need to be calculated by hand from two surveys, we changed our format to include Spanish and English in the same survey. Some parents who do not have Internet access are unable to take these surveys at home. We debated to offer print versions of the electronic survey, but for now, our parents are encouraged to visit school during school hours or go to the local library to take our surveys.
The popularity of social media has taken off; however each district must determine whether this is an effective means of communication for their constituents. A survey of internal and external audiences can identify the pros and cons of starting a social media presence. Translation will also be a factor with social media, which means the district should investigate functions either within the social media platforms or consider posting in both English and another language.
Videos are also an increasingly popular way to communicate. Whether it be explaining the budget or providing an overview of the district, videos can either be recorded in English and a separate video in another language or, subtitles may be displayed at the bottom of the screen.
Blogs are another avenue districts chose to explore as a means of communication. At District 130, the superintendent’s blog, operated through WordPress.com, is built into our website and is able to be translated for our audience.
Our parents rely on the district mass notification system for attendance, announcements and for emergency notifications. We do not have the Blackboard Connect system translate for us. Instead, each time a district or school-wide message is sent out, it is translated and recorded in Spanish. Additionally, parents are asked to select whether they prefer their messages in English or Spanish on our registration form.
Incorporating parent liaisons
In November 2012, District 130 hired two new parent liaisons to increase parental involvement and to create a dialogue between home, school and the community. With one parent liaison fluent in Spanish, the duo is in place to identify communication gaps and to listen to the needs of parents. Several factors are often in play as to why some parents are not involved. Lack of child care, transportation, flexibility, and the language barrier are often preventing well-intentioned parents from participating in their child’s education. Parent liaisons can also reach out to diverse community leaders to become a key ingredient in creating successful community engagement partnerships.
School boards and administrators will encounter some backlash from members of the community when it comes to serving a diverse population. At District 130, we have had community members call, write to the local newspaper and show up at board meetings to protest the use of Spanish in our district newsletter. These individuals feel that all of our materials should only be in English. We counter that complaint by explaining that our reasons for serving all stakeholders, including those who only speak and read in other native languages. It is just as important for them to know that their tax dollars are being spent wisely and how the district is serving their students.
Diversity communication should not be an afterthought when implementing a communications program. The National School Public Relations Association has developed a diversity engagement blog to address the needs of diverse stakeholders in school districts and information can be found at: www.nspraconnectingcommunities.blogspot.com. With a multitude of multiple languages, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds stirring the melting pot of American culture, it is critical to serve our community members and stop and ask for directions along the road of diversity communication.