Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools has added two interpreters, effectively doubling the number of personnel available to assist families in the district that are still learning English.

The district announced the hires on Thursday during a press conference with the NC Congress of Latino Organizations, which has been working with district officials over the past six months to address challenges faced by Latinx students during the pandemic.

“After conducting many listening sessions with over 500 Hispanic families, students and teachers during the last quarter of 2019, we determined the lack of bilingual personnel at the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools was the main barrier preventing families from thriving and helping their children succeed in school,” said Oscar Zuñiga, the organizer for the congress’s Forsyth County chapter and assistant pastor at New Hope United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem. “We heard from many parents who want to be more involved in their children’s academic progress, extracurricular activities and mental health, but face barriers due to the lack of interpreters and bilingual staff.”

Any families that need interpretation support should contact their child’s school to request assistance, said David Sisk, director of English Language Learner programs for the district. They can also contact the administrative office at 336.748.4000, or Nareny Martinez, the English learner parent engagement manager, at 336.748.4000 ext. 70440.

Sisk said the district is also planning to hire an additional bilingual parent assistant on top of the two already in place on its CARES Teams, which help families address educational technology issues and help improve communication between schools and families.

More than 7,000 students in the district are classified as English learners, Sisk said. There are more than 85 different languages spoken in the district, with Spanish being most prevalent outside of English, but also including Arabic, Swahili, Vietnamese and Chinese.

“We are grateful that the district has listened to our concerns and prioritized hiring bilingual persons in the 2020-2021 budget,” Zuñiga said. “The additional interpreters and other services will help many families navigate the school system, particularly during this difficult time of COVID. As leaders of the North Carolina Congress of Latino Organizations, we see this change as an important step towards creating equity in the education of our children.”

Rev. Angelica Regalado Cieza, founding pastor of and mission director of Estamos Unidos Moravian Ministry in Winston-Salem, said language barriers have hindered Spanish-speaking parents from assisting their children in transitioning to remote learning.

“Not being able to know how to turn on a computer or use some of these programs, it’s much more complicated when you don’t understand the instructions,” she said. “That’s why we think that first we need to target the interpreters, and reach out that bridge in terms of making the instructions in terms of whatever the school system is providing to these families understandable for these Hispanic families.”

The district is also focusing on family literacy to equip parents to better support their children’s learning. One program, which is run remotely out of Mineral Springs Elementary, uses the child’s curriculum to teach the parents English.

“The parents are learning English; they’re improving their English skills,” Sisk said. “They’re helping their children with their homework in English. And their children’s English ability and academic scores are going up. It’s a beautiful program.”

Sisk also said the district encourages parents with limited English facility to read to their children in Spanish.

“A lot of our parents who speak Spanish may not have a good handle on English,” he said. “They can work with their children in their first language. It’s perfectly okay to read to your children, help them develop their literacy in Spanish, because that literacy will transfer to English.”

A report issued by McKinsey & Company in June predicted that “learning loss will probably be greatest among low-income, Black and Hispanic students.” The report noted that “lower-income students are less likely to have access to high-quality remote learning or to a conducive learning environment, such as a quiet space with minimal distractions, devices they do not need to share, high-speed internet and parental academic supervision.” The report projected that in a “virus resurgence” scenario in which school closures and part-time schedules continue intermittently through the 2020-21 school year, “Black students may fall behind 10.3 months, Hispanic students by 9.2 months, and low-income student by more than a year. We estimate that this would exacerbate existing achievement gaps by 15 to 20 percent.”

Sisk cautioned that due to lack of in-person instruction in Forsyth County, there hasn’t been an opportunity to assess student progress. The only data available, he said, is the MAP Growth Assessment, which came out about a week ago.

“There is evidence the pandemic has exacerbated some of those achievement gaps, but there’s also some evidence that it’s not as bad as some people had initially thought,” he said. “That’s still very preliminary data, so I would caution people from taking too much away from that data. But here locally, we know our at-risk students — be they English learners, exceptional children students — are struggling with this environment. We know it’s better to have students face to face.”

Ivan Parra, the executive director of the NC Congress of Latino Organizations, said it’s no secret that immigrant families face unique pressures related to the pandemic.

“Many of the parents are essential workers that have been impacted in a very negative way,” he said. “Many are at risk of losing their jobs or have lost their jobs. They haven’t had access to federal support because some have come from mixed-status families in terms of their immigration. There’s difficulties related to housing.

“And all that is reflected in what the students are experiencing within the classroom,” he continued. “We feel as an organization that we have to strengthen the capacity of the community to deal with those issues outside of the school so that the children can have the best performance as things continue to improve.”

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