For fourth grade teacher Travis Schwartzkopf, who teaches in the Ogden School District, communicating with parents has been tough this year. That’s partly because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions on in-person meetings, but also because about 70% of his students’ parents identify as non-white and many don’t speak English.
Parent-teacher relationships are key to student success, he said, but they become much harder to establish without a common language. And as Utah — like the rest of the country — becomes increasingly diverse, schools are having to work harder to connect with parents.
“I’ve seen parents and teachers at odds and butting heads,” Schwartzkopf said. “It would only make that worse if there were a lack of communication. And so I think in order to have that teamwork and that camaraderie that you need to help these students become successful, we have to have outstanding communication back and forth.”
This year, Schwartzkopf’s district began trying something new to help — a translation service. He can now pick up the phone and connect with a licensed translator while the parent is on the other end.
The new system is still a little clunky, but better than the old solutions. He said the district used to ask high school students to come in and translate, or pull from a limited number of staff. Because of the high demand, teachers and parents would sometimes have to awkwardly wait for someone to come before they could speak with each other.
He said the service has been a huge help, particularly when he had to explain to a student’s parents their son was struggling with reading and was going to need extra help.
“I think sometimes those resources have a negative connotation to a family,” he said. “And so I really needed somebody that could help me explain what a benefit this was going to be to their son and all the great things we were going to be able to offer him.“
Other schools like the University of Utah and the Salt Lake City School District use similar services.
“With over 80 languages spoken, there’s no way we could manage without help from translation service agencies,” said SLC district spokesperson Yándary Chatwin.
Most of the calls so far in Ogden have been in Spanish, though they’ve also used the service for Arabic, Swahili, Marshallese and Portuguese translations, said district translator Claudia Lopez. There’s even a video function to help parents communicate through American Sign Language.
Lopez said having the new option also takes a burden off the students themselves, who would sometimes become the default translators for their parents. The adults — teachers and parents — were relying on kids to accurately describe what each was saying. It could get uncomfortable, too, as kids needed to translate things about themselves.
“The kid gets to be the kid,” she said. “[They get] to listen and hear for themselves that they’re doing great and not having to feel pressured in not finding the [right] word.”
Lopez said as students come to school with a range of needs and from different backgrounds, translation services are just one way schools can help get parents more involved in their kids’ education.