Communicating in and out of the classroom

Published 1:00 pm Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

With 2 dozen languages spoken by families in Albert Lea Area Schools, district employs efforts to keep lines of communication open

By Sarah Kocher, for the Tribune

Albert Lea Area Schools is implementing a variety of tools in the district’s attempt to support multicultural learners who, between them, speak two dozen different languages at home.

According to data compiled by the Minnesota Department of Education in 2022, 10.5% of the district’s students are English language learners. However, many more students report to the district that a different language is spoken in their homes: 10.1% of students speak Spanish at home, 9.7% speak Karen and 1% speak the Nuer language, which is spoken in South Sudan. The remaining 20 languages have even fewer speakers per language.

Email newsletter signup

“It’s like a couple families here and a couple families there,” Executive Director of Teaching and Learning Mary Jo Dorman said.

The district has 16 success coaches it employs to support these students, and also heavily utilizes these employees to communicate with families. Success coaches can translate from the three most common home languages, and also provide valuable knowledge and insight about different cultures.

“I have to say that I’m so grateful for them,” English language teacher and district English Language Coordinator Beth Faber said. “… I think without them, we’d still have a huge gap in communication with families.”

Which languages are spoken and how common they are among families in the district changes over time. For instance, Dorman said, as recently as 2010 Albert Lea Area Schools had no Karen families. These past few years have brought an influx of families from Puerto Rico following the devastating 2017 hurricane. And Nuer was a much more commonly spoken language among families in the area, in the mid-1990s, when refugees from war in South Sudan were newly moving to the area. While these refugees established a strong and stable community, fewer families continued to move to Albert Lea, so the number of district families speaking the language dwindled.

For families whose home language is not English, Spanish, Karen or the Nuer language, the district tries to use its biggest resource: its people.

“Principals are pretty aware of how to support families,” Dorman said. “And so it’s challenging, but … we just try and figure out who knows what (and) how do we make it work,” Dorman said.

For instance, recently one family from Ukraine needed support in communicating with the school, Faber said. In that instance, someone involved in sponsoring the family could speak Russian and Ukrainian and helped bridge that communication gap.

Albert Lea Area Schools also makes use of a service called LanguageLine — a contracted service that provides translators via telephone.

The district uses another phone system that allows it to send out recorded messages in the home languages families have registered with the district; for instance, if the district knows that a family speaks Spanish at home, it can send that family recorded phone messages in Spanish only.

But a big part of the district’s push toward connecting with families is about in-person community work, which Dorman and Faber both said Albert Lea Area Schools is working to reimplement following cessation due to the pandemic. This looks like attending community meetings or church services heavily attended by some of the district’s different language groups.

Since she started with the district in 2012, Dorman has seen the employment and utilization of success coaches grow dramatically, she said.

“I think we’re better at … figuring out what are the barriers,” Dorman said of the district’s progress over time.

One such barrier success coaches have been working on is access to transportation for families to get to school for meetings, Faber said. Many of their multilingual learners belong to families without access to a car.

“Sometimes our success coaches will actually be their form of transportation,” Faber said.

She has also seen changes in practices implemented to further support English language learners in the classroom. The district is currently focused on having its

English language teachers co-teach with students’ classroom instructors, Dorman said, citing research that showed pulling students out of class for English language work was less effective than co-teaching. Staying in the traditional classroom can help English language learners pick up more language from their context and peers, she said.

Another way multicultural learners are supported in class is through language partners, Faber said. These are fellow students who speak the student’s home language and can help that student when another adult isn’t there. Faber said they try not to rely heavily on language partners, because it’s not that student’s job, but that these language partners can be another layer of support when a student needs to use their home language in the classroom.

Dorman said statistics show that English language learners talk very little during the school day, and an important part of teachers’ work is encouraging them to talk during class.

Faber said the attitude in education has also shifted toward students speaking their home language in the classroom. She said teacher training has hugely improved in spreading the message that it’s OK to speak one’s home language in the classroom.

“I always tell students and families, ‘You being able to communicate with your family is the most important thing, so you need to speak your language with your family, and when you can use English, that’s great too,” Faber said. “Because there’s nothing worse than when you have a child that can’t communicate with their family.”

According to Faber, the Minnesota Department of Education now requires teachers to take a course about how to support multilingual learners when renewing their teaching licenses.

She also sees part of her work as encouraging other teachers and members of the community to reach out to multilingual families and let them know that they’re welcome in Albert Lea Area Schools.

“They are great families, and they do need support, but they also want to support us as well,” Faber said.