By Layne Gabriel*
Family partnerships are essential for student success. With more than 20,000 students who speak a language other than English at home, Omaha Public Schools has created a robust team to navigate families through the education system and help newcomers feel comfortable in their community.
Bilingual Liaison Javier Rodriguez-Torres leads a team of 53 staff members who work throughout the district to connect with non-English speaking families and support them using the language they speak at home. The team provides these services in Spanish, Karen, Karenni/Burmese, Arabic, Somali, French, Swahili and Nepali.
“We look for those individuals who are not only bilingual but can be bicultural,” Rodriguez-Torres said of his team. “A lot of them belong to different organizations that their neighborhood schools serve, so they know the community.”
While translations are a big part of the job, the bilingual liaisons also use their knowledge as engaged members of our community to help families adjust to their new homes, Rodriguez-Torres said.
They also work to bridge cultural gaps to help students and teachers feel more comfortable working with each other. In the Karen culture, making direct eye contact is considered impolite, Rodriguez-Torres said. To teachers, it may seem that students are distracted, but community leaders worked with them to understand this cultural norm and alleviate concerns.
“The roles that we play are so diverse,” he said. “We have become academic advisors, we have become the welcoming committee, we do enrollments, we support families even as some navigate a crisis. Every role you think of for the school, we are on it.”
Facilitating communications among families, schools and students increase engagement in the students’ education, but the benefits extend beyond the school building. The relationships the liaisons build with members of their community help make the district a trusted source of information during changing times.
“I was surprised during this pandemic how much the families reached out to us to ask where was the right information, what was trustworthy,” Rodriguez-Torres said. “That shows the responsibility we have as a community agency to not only educate the kids but also the community trusts that we will be giving them the right information.”
Feedback from families is overwhelmingly positive, and they appreciate having liaisons available to share important communications and welcome them to the district, he said.
“A lot of people feel that when you come to us, you are received with someone who understands you and can actually communicate your needs and wants.”
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Layne Gabriel is a reporter of OPS