Local teachers learn Spanish to speak with students and parents 

click to enlarge Larry Spitzer teaches Citlali Perez, 5, how to count music at Coolidge Elementary in Oklahoma City, Thursday, Feb. 19, 2015. - GARETT FISBECK
  • Garett Fisbeck
  • Larry Spitzer teaches Citlali Perez, 5, how to count music at Coolidge Elementary in Oklahoma City, Thursday, Feb. 19, 2015.

Assistant Principal Kelly Forbes likes to joke that he can communicate with every student at Hillcrest Elementary, unlike the actual principal.

“I speak Spanish probably more than I speak English,” said Forbes, who is bilingual. “I always tease that the other principal only talks to half of the kids but I talk to 100 percent of the kids and the parents.”

With Hispanic students making up half of the Hillcrest enrollment, Forbes’ bilingual skills come in handy when it comes to communicating with students and parents who don’t speak English and building relationships with those same students and parents who can sometimes feel isolated because of the language barrier.

“Speaking Spanish as a teacher means you not only get to teach these kids but communicate with them and their parents and show them that you care about them,” Forbes said. “I like to call it pedagogy with passion.”

Learning Spanish is no longer just a bonus skill for teachers in the Oklahoma City Public School District; it has become a necessity. Half of the district’s student population is Hispanic, and 20 out of 55 elementary schools have Hispanic populations over 60 percent, including several with over 90 percent Latino enrollment.

The district has hired bilingual communications staff, offers most paperwork in English and Spanish and welcomed its first Latina school board member last year. But there is also an effort to hire bilingual teachers and offer Spanish lessons to those educators already in the district.

“You might have noticed that there are a lot of children here that speak Spanish,” said Stephanie Toney, a science teacher at Roosevelt Middle School, where 80 percent of the student body is Hispanic. “I felt like [learning Spanish] would help me communicate better with parents and students.”

Toney is one of 50 teachers, principals and school staff members across the district currently taking Spanish lessons through the district. Mastery of the language can take years, but those teachers who are just a few weeks into the lessons are already finding a benefit.

“I can now get through a parent conference — with a translator, but I can say some things,” Toney said. “And when the kids are speaking Spanish, I can now pick up enough words to say, ‘That’s not really on topic, is it?’ [The students] go, ‘Oh, she understood.’”

click to enlarge Children work with pattern blocks at Coolidge Elementary in Oklahoma City, Thursday, Feb. 19, 2015. - GARETT FISBECK
  • Garett Fisbeck
  • Children work with pattern blocks at Coolidge Elementary in Oklahoma City, Thursday, Feb. 19, 2015.

While many Spanish-speaking students are able to communicate in English, their parents — some who were not raised in the U.S. — might not understand English at all.

At Coolidge Elementary School, where 69 percent of students are Hispanic, teachers across the district learning Spanish recently attended a math night event to practice their skills with non-English-speaking parents.

“They don’t have any Spanish-speaking teachers at [Coolidge], but they do have some Spanish-speaking teacher assistants and staff in the office,” parent Angeles Orellana said through a translator. “It makes it easier to have someone who speaks Spanish, because every time I have a question about my child’s development or academic achievement, it is helpful.”

Orellana has a kindergarten student and a second-grade student at Coolidge and said there can be a language barrier in the school district, especially on the south side, where much of the city’s Hispanic population lives. While having a Spanish-speaking teacher would be nice, she said most students have some grasp of English while many parents do not.

“The district is doing a good job of implementing more Spanish-speaking teachers, but there is also a need to have more Spanish-speakers in the office and the other support staff positions,” Orellana said.

Schools like Coolidge also send worksheets home in both languages so parents can work with children at home.

“It means I can help my children out with their homework,” Orellana added.

As the district’s Hispanic student population grows, there will continue to be a need to help students learn English and have staff members who can speak Spanish. This process not only helps the student but also helps increase parental involvement.

“I would hope [some of the parents] feel like it is a more comfortable relationship between the teacher and the parent,” Toney said. “I can’t imagine someone speaking Russian to me, so I know it’s hard for many of the parents [who don’t speak English].”

Beyond just communication, learning Spanish can also help teachers better understand the growing Latino culture in the district.

“We have about 15,000 English learners in the district, so learning Spanish is important,” said Patricia Hargrave, an area resource coordinator for the district who has helped present the Spanish classes to staff. “But these teachers are also learning about the culture, and sometimes the cultural differences are what lead to miscommunication.”

The district’s Hispanic population has risen steadily over the past several years, and many of the region’s large urban school districts also have large Latino student populations. This year, Oklahoma City joined districts in Dallas, Houston, Fort Worth and Austin, Texas, as a mostly Hispanic school system.

“This is about finding ways to help our students and parents,” Forbes said. “This is who we are.”

Print headline: Critical communication, Schools look for ways to adapt to an increasing Hispanic population.

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