Technology is transforming schools. From flipped classrooms and other online learning methods to instant communications throughout the school and district, obvious changes are hard to miss.

But new technology helps in less obvious ways, too. In one case, it is greatly improving educators’ ability to stay in touch with a specific segment of the school community where communication has often been lacking.

“The use of technology has been a game changer in overcoming language barriers with our students and their families,” says Nicholas Indeglio, principal of Downingtown Middle School in Pennsylvania and a 2017 NASSP Digital Principal of the Year. “In the past, we’ve relied on interpreters or a limited number of bilingual building staff members to be our communication bridge with these families,” he says. “But as our population becomes more diverse, with students from all over the globe, the language challenges have grown exponentially. Not many of us speak Kabardian or Buryat.”

Indeglio and other educators working with parents who speak other languages say there are a variety of tech options to fill the gaps in communication and allow parents unfamiliar with our education system to better understand it. These new options give these parents an opportunity to participate and more carefully respond to questions or concerns.

ED Guidance

A 2015 guidance from the U.S. Department of Education spells out that schools must provide English as a Second Language (ESL) parents with the same information as English speakers through “free qualified assistance services.”

Hannah Turner, who teaches ESL at Argyle Middle School in Silver Spring, MD, says that as part of their mission, schools should consider the needs of these families. “We have to ask ourselves if this information is important enough to relay to the families who speak certain languages; then we have to do something to make it available for the families who speak all of them,” Turner says. 

Apart from providing basic information, teachers now can better communicate about behavior and performance issues, often to the surprise of students who expect that the language barrier will prevent messages going home.

Working with Families

Kristina Robertson, administrator for the ESL and adult education program for Roseville, MN, schools and co-author of a guide for schools about working with ESL families, says that it is critical for schools to establish several communication methods and to develop a two-way system for each individual family that is “formal, steady, and reliable.”

“It doesn’t work to speak louder or slower in a language they don’t understand—or send notes home and asking students to translate them,” she says.

Certain interactions are particularly important: explaining student schedules and course requirements, attendance policies, busing and transportation information, free and reduced-price meal options, school closures and delays, and procedures for handling medical and mental health issues. 

Robertson says schools should be concerned about translations provided only in writing, because immigrant families often don’t have a good knowledge of their own written language. However, offering key information in a number of languages in the office or online can avoid having to repeat it or having it interpreted several times, she notes.

Indeglio says technology can help at two times with these families—during the registration process and when counselors and social workers need to be in touch with families. 

“These challenges have been mitigated by advancements in technology that are affordable, widely available, and easy to utilize,” Indeglio says. “Most importantly, the available technology allows us to directly be the face-to-face contact with our community.” He affirms that while the technology that helps to meet these needs continues to grow, schools should use a small collection of consistent, effective systems to maximize staff training and expertise and allow parents to become familiar with specific applications. “Simpler is always better because the more cumbersome a process, the less likely people will be to use it,” he says.

Integrated Systems 

Indeglio believes districts must have a website platform that has “an integrated mass email/phone call system along with a ‘push’ to social media outlets.” His district uses Schoolwires by Blackboard, which he says provides an easy-to-use application or web-based interface that can publish to the web, social media, or mass email with a one-click choice for multiple languages. 

“This simplifies what is often a multistep process of preparing the same message in different languages to post on various platforms,” Indeglio says. LivingTree offers what it describes as a family engagement platform that “provides a private social network for your school community.” It can be downloaded for free or accessed online like Facebook. Teachers can post classroom information and updates, and participants can share comments, photos, and videos that allow two-way communication in more than 100 languages.

Different Options 

Indeglio also recommends Google Translate as a simple and effective tool, noting that it also now offers Word Lens, an application that allows a user to point his or her device at words to have them translated. Or, with iTranslate (a phone app costing about $7), users can just speak into the phone, and the app translates the speech into written words while speaking the words in the second language, he says.

Robertson says her schools use Blackboard Connect (now called Blackboard Mass Notification Systems) to send robocalls out to lists by language group. “We have cultural liaisons who record the messages in Karen, Somali, Hmong, Nepali, and Spanish and leave their contact information so parents can call back with questions,” she says.

Montgomery County Schools in Maryland, where Turner is employed, makes LanguageLine Solutions available to its employees. The firm offers translators in 240 different languages, guaranteeing a connection with a Spanish speaker in about 15 seconds and a translator to other languages in about 30 seconds.

Turner says an app called Remind allows teachers to send notes home to a computer or handheld device in various languages—and allows the family to communicate back. TalkingPoints has similar features.

Skype now offers translation along with its well-known video communication applications, which some schools are using to hold meetings parents are unable to attend in person or when educators want a face-to-face conversation with a parent.

If high-tech options are not right for the recipients, Robertson notes, at least one school district uses a low-end technology to communicate—the telephone. The district establishes a phone tree among speakers of certain languages and uses it to send messages out to participants. 

Jim Paterson is a writer based in Lewes, DE.