District schools working to build connections to Latino families

Suzie Romig
RFSD Public Information Officer

Roaring Fork School District board member Peter Delany recently got a taste of what a lot of people in the valley often experience.

He sat in a two-hour meeting of parents, students, school administrators and community members where he understood only pieces of the energetic conversation in Spanish.

“I could see how engaged everyone was, and I couldn’t wait for the translated notes,” he said.

Delany is part of the 20-member District Accountability Committee in the RFSD that this year is investigating how Anglo and Latino students can learn side-by-side. Two initial community input meetings were conducted entirely in Spanish with students from Roaring Fork High helping to facilitate discussions. The accountability exercise is key to a district that currently has a 36 percent Hispanic student population.

“I think it’s been very valuable to see Anglos sit in all-Spanish meetings looking frustrated,” said Sonya Hemmen, bilingual principal at Glenwood Springs Elementary who helped organize the meetings. “It gives you a bird’s-eye view of what some of our kids and parents feel like. It really makes you want to make communication better.”

Latinos were able to discuss openly in their first language their kudos and concerns for the district. Topics ranged from bilingual education options to timely truancy notifications to promoting Latino parent involvement.

“You have to sit down and be willing to talk to your community, good, bad or indifferent,” Hemmen said. “We are definitely on a road to solutions and some celebrations of what we are doing well. This is a great chance to information share districtwide.”

Organizers say detailed notes from the meetings will be used to come up with concrete recommendations for the district. The final districtwide accountability meeting of the school year is open to the public at 6:30 p.m. May 11 at the district office in Glenwood Springs.

“The needs of Latino parents and students are really not that different from the Anglo population,” Delany noted. “Things such as communication and parent involvement are critical to student success. It’s just a bit more a challenge when there is a language barrier.”

“The multicultural aspects of our schools is a plus for students in many ways. Kids learn a lot about other ways of living and most of all how to get along with each other,” he noted.

School officials say the district has been pro-active for years to build bridges to Latino families, from Latino focus groups to Latino parent group meetings. Accreditation reviewers from the Colorado Department of Education recently commended the district for hosting bilingual meetings in English and Spanish rather than merely sending home written information duplicated in Spanish.

“There is really an extraordinary effort to reach out and to communicate effectively with the Hispanic population,” reviewer Melody Henson noted.

Schools host multi-cultural nights that help celebrate the Latino heritage. Informational sessions are offered in Spanish about everything from health issues to educational changes to help Spanish-speaking or bilingual parents.

“The strong response we get to these meetings shows how important and valuable they are,” noted Sopris Elementary ELL teacher Ann English. “It is very meaningful for our parents and makes them feel very included in the school.”

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