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.”

More: Read stories about the importance of digital access in Sarasota-Manatee.

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.”

More: Thousands of Sarasota-Manatee students lack the internet or equipment to learn from home

More: Telehealth services coming to six Manatee County schools

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