New Durham department aims to be a bridge between multilingual families and the school system

Laura Chavez-Noriega addresses parents at a talk on ADHD at Club Boulevard Elementary School.
Laura Chavez-Noriega addresses parents at a talk on ADHD at Club Boulevard Elementary School. Alexandra Vallardes

When Wendy Rosado wanted to talk to her son’s school about suspensions, she met more than just a language barrier.

Rosado, whose son is a student in the Durham Public Schools, sought to make sure that he was being disciplined in a way that would help him as a student, instead of putting him behind. She wanted to make sure he was receiving “disciplina que ayuda.” (Discipline that helps.)

But Rosado says her concerns were dismissed, and she was told, “if you don’t like the rules in the school, then go back to your country.”

This is exactly the kind of interaction that the Durham school system’s new department, the Multilingual Resource Center, will work to prevent. The center will coordinate interpretation and translation services for the district, as well as facilitating parent engagement and community outreach to ensure that all parents have access to the services they need.

Pablo Friedmann, the interim coordinator of the Multilingual Resource Center, said the department will focus on facilitating parent engagement with the school district and ensuring access.

“So much of what I consider our work to be is a bridge,” Friedmann said.

Friedmann noted that while some other school districts do have translation services, he isn’t aware of any that are focusing on building bridges with parents and families. The Multilingual Resource Center will be separate from the school system’s Department of English as a Second Language.

“As Latino families and multilingual and newcomer families have become a larger part of DPS, they’ve come to articulate their desires to be more integrated and take better advantage of services available,” said Chip Sudderth, a spokesman for Durham Public Schools.

Antonio Alanis, the education program manager at El Centro Hispano, an advocacy group in Durham, said that one barrier for parents who move to North Carolina is that they often have a completely different education than their children.

“I’ve had a couple of parents tell me they don’t feel comfortable going up to teachers and saying, ‘I need help,’” Alanis said, noting that a cultural barrier can exist alongside a language barrier.

Alexandra Valladares, a DPS parent and community organizer, said that she has seen DPS work to engage the Latino community. Although the multilingual staff in DPS is often overworked and interpreters can be hard to come by, Valladares said she has seen the district make changes, such as providing interpretation services at board meetings.

(Correction: Alexandra Valladares' last name was misspelled in a previous version of this story.)

“This has been a push from so many different parent groups,” Valladares said. “I’m grateful that DPS has been listening and has made changes.”

Valladares applauds the choice of Friedmann for the new department, because students and community members know and feel comfortable approaching him.

“It happens over and over again, as we’re out and about in the community. His face is visible. People do know him, and that gives me reassurance, that he has been making these connections. He’s not just somebody that is known within the administration and leadership, but somebody that goes out into the community. For me that’s very important,” Valladares said.

She said she hopes that Friedmann is given the tools he needs to adequately staff his department.

“I think DPS is doing a good thing in the changes that they’ve made. I do think in terms of budget that there needs to be intentionality in terms of allocating enough resources there, but it doesn’t stop with DPS,” Valladares said. “We definitely need to push at the state level for more funding.”

Valladares is hopeful that Friedmann will be able to facilitate more useful conversations between parents and DPS representatives.

“You have to really take into account the circumstances and the context. And for our community, that is very important,” she said. “We have people who are traumatized by immigration raids. If a child is fearful, and they’re not sleeping at night, they miss their bus. That happens to a lot of our families. Somebody needs to understand the context, instead of sending the child to in-school suspension 10 to 12 times.”

At the end of the day, Valladares says this is a conversation about inclusion.

“Let’s not ‘other’ our kids. Let’s not say that because they come from households where they speak Spanish, they’re somehow less,” she said. “No, they’re our kids. And if we are about serving all of our population and ensuring that every child has a bright future, then we will be about ensuring that they have adequate resources.”

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Shelbi Polk reports on K-12 education in Durham and Orange Counties for the News & Observer. She attended Texas A&M University and followed the crowds to Raleigh in 2018.