Construyendo puentes

Communicating with Spanish-speaking parents is a challenge in Memphis. Meet the former teacher who’s taking it on.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Talia Palacio directs student volunteers at a Hispanic Heritage Month event in October. Palacio is the newly hired specialist handling communication between Shelby County Schools and Memphis' growing Hispanic community.

Growing up in Memphis, Talia Palacio started building bridges across cultures at an early age.

At the urging of her Spanish professor mother, she spoke Spanish at home and learned English at school. In school, Palacio shared Panamanian food and traditions with her classmates.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Palacio, right, coordinates activities during a Hispanic Heritage Month event for Shelby County Schools.

She went on to become a teacher in Memphis and Nashville, eventually returning to Shelby County Schools as director of the state’s only bilingual program at Treadwell Elementary, which is more than a third Hispanic.

Now Palacio is the point person for the district’s efforts to connect with Hispanic parents, many of whom speak little English. The investment has been a long time coming for a city with a growing Hispanic population and for a school system that has struggled to meet their needs. Last year, the U.S. Department of Education launched an investigation into allegations that Shelby County Schools has been turning away newly arrived students.

Palacio took her new job in July amid a national struggle over immigration, where differing visions for undocumented residents range from building a wall to providing a pathway to citizenship. She appreciates how Tennessee’s largest school district is seeking to welcome Hispanic families.

“I can see how we’ve become more conscientious when addressing matters pertaining to our multilingual families,” Palacio said. “We want all of our families, students and teachers and staff to feel supported, all while being more culturally aware.”

Natalia Powers

With her background, Palacio was natural choice to become the district’s new bilingual communications analyst, said Natalia Powers, a Latina herself who joined Shelby County Schools last year as its director of communications. Powers has been a key player in engaging more thoughtfully with Hispanic families.

“The community already knew her. It was kind of a no-brainer,” Powers said of hiring Palacio. “Anything we’re doing has a Spanish outlet or arm.”

Palacio’s main role is to support principals and school-based staff in how they communicate with Hispanic families. She spearheaded a survey during registration last summer to learn how those parents prefer to receive district communication. The result was a new Twitter account and a news website in Spanish, and she’s working on a regular show for Shelby County Schools’ radio station.

She also planned this month’s Hispanic Heritage Month celebration at Hickory Ridge Middle School. Hundreds of families turned out to meet community organizations and experience cultural dances and food. And during a recent parent session on optional schools, Palacio led an impromptu mini-session in another room for the Spanish-speaking parents.

The Memphis district has more than 13,000 students who speak primarily Spanish at home, or about 12 percent of the student population.

The key to reaching these families, especially newcomer families, is to be out in the community, rather than waiting for questions, Powers said.

“They just don’t know,” she said. “Not that they don’t want to hear about opportunities. They are learning how this country operates.”


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Palacio has been working with principals at schools with a higher-than-average population of Hispanic students. Those include Jackson Elementary, Ridgeway High, Peabody Elementary, Craigmont Middle and Craigmont High.

Principals are up for the challenge, she said, but need better tools and direction. “They take ownership. They’re invested and they want parents to hear their voices,” Palacio said.

Her availability has been a godsend to principals like Cedric Smith of Hickory Ridge Middle, where almost a fifth of the student population is Hispanic. Previously, he would call random Spanish-speaking district employees for help in translating parent materials or pointing parents to community resources. Now, he has a dedicated specialist to call on, which means he spends less time chasing information that’s vital for his school’s parents.

“Everything we do is in English and Spanish,” said Smith, whose school also offers four adult classes for English as a Second Language. “Having a contact person, especially when you have a large Hispanic population to know the resources parents can receive … I think it’ll make a huge difference.”

Though the number of bilingual employees has increased in Shelby County Schools, the hiring of Palacio is different because she represents a district-wide commitment.

“When it comes to Hispanic outreach, I feel like schools are working in silos,” said Yesenia Ubaldo, a teacher and family and school support specialist for eight years.

Now, the district is “more proactive,” she said. “To be able to have access to someone who will have direct contact is wonderful.”

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Students dance with their mothers at a Hispanic Heritage Month celebration in October.

Ubaldo notes a shift in Memphis’ Hispanic population in recent decades. A lot of immigrant men used to arrive alone; now there are more families. And compared to other parts of the country with significant Hispanic populations, Memphis has more first-generation families who do not speak English, said Luis Anaya, national sales manager of Radio Ambiente, a local Spanish station.

Palacio coordinates ads on the station to reach such parents, and she plans to make more school announcements on the airwaves too, all to help families navigate the array of tasks involved in having a child in the Shelby County Schools.

“They need to be vaccinated, they need to fill out forms, they need to bring their address, all those little things,” Anaya said. “We need to inform them and we are being helpful addressing through our broadcast. Because in the past, I’ve seen Shelby County having trouble to get that information to the Hispanic community.”

Anaya recently helped promote the district’s Newcomer International Center for high school students who are newly arriving from mostly Spanish-speaking countries. The station hosted a live DJ event at Wooddale High School and invited parents to learn more about the new program.

The center has 26 students so far but needs to connect to more parents to reach its capacity of 100. It’s one of the reasons that Palacio was hired in the first place.

“The families are learning and buying in,” Palacio said. “It makes a difference to see we’re here in the community.”

showing up

Nearly 60 percent of Newark 12th-graders are chronically absent. A conference on Tuesday will tackle the issue.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Last school year, nearly one in three Newark students was chronically absent, meaning they missed 18 or more school days. For Newark 12th-graders, the rate was nearly 60 percent.

The problem is the subject of an all-day conference on Tuesday at Rutgers University-Newark called, “Showing Up Matters: Shifting the Culture of Chronic Absenteeism.” Mayor Ras Baraka and Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory are both scheduled to speak.

The conference comes as educators and policymakers nationwide have zeroed in on chronic absenteeism, following research that shows it’s linked to negative outcomes for students including lower test scores, higher dropout rates, and even a greater risk of entering the criminal justice system.

New Jersey is one of three dozen states that plans to evaluate and potentially sanction schools based on how many of their students are chronically absent — a measure that counts any day a student misses school, whether the absence is excused, unexcused, or for disciplinary reasons.

Newark’s chronic absenteeism rate is more than double the national average of 13 percent (a rate based on a slightly lower definition of 15 or more absences per year). In response, the district launched an attendance initiative in 2016 to drive down its chronic absenteeism rate, which is worse than in other high-poverty districts across the state. And two different city advisory groups — the Children’s Cabinet and the Newark Youth Policy Board — are focused on the issue.

Unsurprisingly, students who are absent a lot tend to do worse in school. In Newark, as in other districts, students who were chronically absent had lower state test scores and were less likely to graduate. The district found that just 58 percent of ninth-graders who were chronically absent in 2011-2012 earned diplomas four years later, compared to 86 percent of students with good attendance.

A 2017 report by Advocates for Children of New Jersey shed some light on why Newark students miss so much school. Among the reasons cited by dozens of high-school students who were interviewed for the report were: boring classes, coursework they couldn’t keep up with, mental-health challenges, long walks to school, having to hold down jobs or help care for siblings, and neighborhood violence.

“How can we focus on school when someone got killed yesterday?” one student is quoted as saying. “It’s hard. I can’t balance the two. I can’t focus. How am I supposed to feel safe walking to school when at night in that area there [are] shootings?”

Attendees are likely to grapple with tough questions like those at Tuesday’s conference, which goes from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Rutgers Paul Robeson Campus Center. You can find details here.

at odds

Westminster’s model part of dispute with federal investigators in education of students learning English

Teacher Amy Adams walks around her classroom checking on students working independently on math at Flynn Elementary School in Westminster. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Westminster schools may have failed to identify scores of students needing help learning English, and also neglected to effectively teach many of those students, according to a federal investigation. Those are among the findings in newly released documents behind the school district’s agreement to boost services for English learners.

The 9,400-student district signed a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice in February, which outlines changes the district must make.

Despite the district’s agreement, Westminster Public Schools officials dispute the investigation’s findings.

“We still maintain that we were not out of compliance with the law,” said James Duffy, the district’s chief operating officer. But he said in the interest of students, “instead of continuing to argue and waste resources going back and forth, we are going to meet the agreement.”

Many of the disagreements center on how Westminster places and advances students based on proficiency rather than age, which is known as competency-based learning.

The district’s model also has put it at odds with the state. Last year, the district argued that Colorado’s accountability system unfairly flagged Westminster’s district for low performance, in part because some students were tested by the state on material they hadn’t yet been exposed to.

Below is a breakdown of the major ways the government believes Westminster schools were violating the law in serving English learners, the way the district argues they weren’t, and some next steps.

  • Finding: Westminster Public Schools has not identified all students that need English language services.

District officials said they had already identified problems in their process before the Department of Justice pointed them out, and were in the process of changing their system.

When a student enrolls in school, most districts require parents to fill out a home language survey that asks the language the students speaks and the language spoken in the home. The problem, in part, was that Westminster officials, years ago, were not testing students whose home language was something other than English, so long as parents had noted that their child did speak English.

“Based on experience with other states and school districts…this practice frequently results in the under-identification of ELs,” the justice department wrote.

This year, state numbers show Westminster has identified 38 percent of its 9,400 students, or 3,615, as English learners.

Officials said they have been using a new form, and said students are now tested for English proficiency when parents identify a primary language in the home that is not English. Teachers also can flag a student for testing and services.

The settlement agreement also requires the district to identify long-term English learners who have been enrolled in American schools for more than five years without making progress toward fluency.

Officials said they have identified 730 long-term English learners in the district. Parents of those students will soon receive letters asking if they are interested in sending their children to school this summer for a program to help those students make more progress.

  • Finding: Westminster Public Schools is not providing adequate services for students that need English language development.

According to the Department of Justice findings, most students in the district aren’t getting help to learn the language.

“Our site visits and review of data revealed that the type of language assistance services (English learners) receive varies widely, depending on which school they attend,” the department states. And when students are getting instruction to learn English, they aren’t always getting it from a teacher who is trained and certified to do so, they found.

Westminster schools use what they call an “interventionist framework” that combines specialists who have Colorado’s Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education endorsement, as well as other specialists, including special education teachers, to form a team of “interventionists” that all work with lagging students. That team works by going into classrooms throughout the day.

It’s a system that, in part, helps maximize the number of teachers working with students when the district doesn’t have enough of one kind, but it also can target which kind of help a student needs, Duffy said.

“We look at the need of our students and not the broad brush labels,” Duffy said. “They are getting services from a number of people. This is a program that has been recognized.”

But the district only tests students in English, meaning some students may not get an appropriate education.

When the district is trying to figure out what class levels to place a new student in, they test them for math and English using tests in English, so if a student can’t understand the test, they may not be able to demonstrate their ability to read or to do math and end up placed in classes below their ability.

District officials say that once in classrooms, teachers look at data closely and can determine if a student has been placed incorrectly just because of a language barrier. Teachers also have some flexibility in how they ask students to show they’ve learned a standard so they can move to another level.

“It’s just an initial placement,” Duffy said. “They are approaching this from a very traditional model. It’s not in alignment with our system.”

As part of the settlement agreement, however, the district must develop new procedures for testing and placing students, including “assessing ELL’s literacy and math levels in Spanish where appropriate and available.”

  • Finding: The district does not have enough staff for its English language learners and does not provide teachers with enough training to help students in their classes.

District officials admit they cannot hire enough trained staff to work with all students, but point out that it’s not a problem unique to their district.

According to district-provided numbers from December, 83 district staff have a Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education endorsement. The February settlement agreement asks the district to increase the number of teachers with the endorsement.

To recruit these highly-sought after teachers, Westminster officials have gone to national job fairs and have provided signing bonuses for hard-to-staff positions, including for teachers with this credential. Going abroad to recruit foreign teachers has not been something Westminster can afford, Duffy said, but the district would hire qualified foreign teachers if they applied.

Westminster also provides out-of-state teachers with a stipend for moving expenses but runs into the high cost of living in Colorado.

“It’s scaring a lot of people away,” Duffy said.

One other incentive Westminster and many other districts offer is a tuition subsidy for teachers interested in earning the endorsement.

The Department of Justice also will require Westminster to develop new and additional training for district teachers who don’t have the credential, so they can better teach language learners.

The district is going to work with the University of Colorado Denver to provide that training. Duffy said officials submitted their teacher training plan to the Department of Justice, and are awaiting approval.