Manatee County Schools offer tools for Spanish-speaking parents


Jenny Rodriguez is most often the person parents talk to when they call the Manatee County School District’s phone line for Spanish-speakers. (Photo: Provided by Debra Estes)

When students have problems at schools, parents can often intervene, working with teachers and administration to try to find solutions.

But what happens when a parent doesn’t speak English and cannot communicate with the school? Language barriers can make problems worse, as a student also loses an advocate who could help resolve a situation. 

In Manatee County, the school system has created a comprehensive communication plan that makes all the information that’s available in English also available in Spanish. This includes information on its website in Spanish, a Spanish-language Facebook page and advertising in Spanish.

The school system also set up a dedicated phone line for Spanish-speaking parents to use if they have questions or need information.

“I think what’s important is that we are working very hard to improve and expand … ways to reach our families and also help our Spanish-speaking students,” said Kevin Chapman, director of strategic planning and district initiatives at Manatee Schools. “It’s a real concerted effort and, I think, it’s been pretty successful so far.”

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While officials say there are about 90 different languages spoken in county schools, Latino students make up about 34% of the district’s population. School officials believe it is essential that the parents of these students are involved in their child’s education because it has been shown that the more engaged a parent is, the better the child performs in school. 

Geri Chaffee, an education advocate for Latinos and founder of Dreamers Academy, said Latino parents – a “consumer of educational services” – and schools – a “provider of educational services” – have different cultures but are aching to connect with one another.

She worked with Manatee schools on the effort and says what the county has done accomplishes that and she hopes it becomes a model for other school districts. 

“Latinos’ number one policy issue, consistently, is education. Number one. Above immigration, deportation, economics,” President Donald Trump or Democratic challenger Joe Biden, she said.

“So, you’ve got a community that’s desperate for their kids to do well in school, and then you’ve got a district that’s desperate for these kids to do well.”

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Chapman said the school system began working on how to better communicate with Latino parents last year, as the district worked on the strategic plan that was approved in September. He said among the goals was to both improve communication with parents and to improve diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

While those were the broad goals, it made sense that an effort be made to reach out to Latino families.

That need came into focus in August as the school system began planning its reopening, a plan that Chapman said was sometimes confusing even to him.

Thanks to the new program, the school system was able to get information out in Spanish on COVID-19 safety protocols, school models and reopening plans. It also placed advertisements in a Spanish-language magazine and public service announcement on Spanish-language radio stations.

As the need for information has grown, the phone line has proved to be one of the best arrows in the school system’s quiver.

“By having this line, we’re able to reach a lot of families and help a lot of families that may have really felt as if they were in a silo,” said Debra Estes, director of English as a second language, migrant and dual language programs for the district. “They didn’t know how to get help. They didn’t know where to get help. They didn’t know who to reach out to.”

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Staffing the line is Jenny Rodriguez, who works in the district’s ESOL, migrant and dual language programs office. 

Rodriguez came to Florida from Puerto Rico when she was a 24-year-old single mother of a 7-year-old daughter. She didn’t speak English and began working in a school cafeteria.

Today she’s the point person for the school district’s Spanish-speaking parents, the person they call when they have questions about a school matter, when they need a problem solved or when they need someone to help them navigate their child’s online portal. 

Most issues can be handled with a quick call to the school or with an explanation.

Sometimes, as was the case with e-learning, it is a bit more complicated. The office had so many calls it wound up creating a training class for Spanish speakers.

There obviously is a need for someone to help parents. When Rodriguez got to work on a recent Monday morning, she had 18 missed calls and 11 voicemail messages. On average, she takes 150 to 200 calls per week.

But then there are weeks like the one earlier this month when the county sent a survey to parents to see whether they wanted to continue with the path they’d taken to attend school in the first quarter, e-learning, brick-and-mortar or a hybrid plan that combined the two, or change.

She got about 400 calls that week.

When she can’t handle all the incoming calls and messages, other bilingual staff members in the office step in to help.

Rodriguez said what motivates her to help families in need of help is her own experience. She empathizes with the people on the other line who are facing the difficulties and the troubles of trying to maneuver in a new country and language like she once did.

“I never, never forget where I came from and how hard it was for me,” she said. “And I want to be that person the parents feel they can come to and they can reach for help or anything else. Not only the parents, but the students.”

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