Shelby County Schools lowers language barriers with bilingual programs

Hispanic Heritage Month

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — As Memphis becomes more diverse, many educators feel the celebration of Hispanic heritage and bilingual education can empower our students.

Case in point, the Shelby County School district is giving students of Spanish speaking families the tools they need to succeed, not just in the classroom but in life.

The district’s bilingual communications program is lowering barriers.

At the corner of Graham and Bayliss in northeast Memphis sits an almost quiet Kingsbury Elementary School. But walk inside its front doors and you’re greeted with a school community full of life, and one celebrating diversity and learning in English and Spanish.

“You greet someone at the door, instead of saying ‘Good Morning,’ you say ‘Buenos Dias,’” Principal Wynn Earle Jr. said. “A small gesture like that shows you’re trying to break down a barrier.”

Language and learning barriers are being broken down at Kingsbury as it embraces its diversity.

“I think one thing that makes our school really unique is its diversity,” Earle said. “At our school we have a Hispanic population of approximately 65 percent.”

The Shelby County School district as a whole has more than 90,000 students with a growing Hispanic or Latinx population.

Talia Palacio, a bilingual communications analyst, said the district’s Latinx/Hispanic population has grown tremendously over the past year. This year they have 15,536 Latinx students in SCS.

But what’s bridging the gap between SCS and many Spanish speaking students and their families is the SCS bilingual communications program.

“The mission is, bilingual communications is more than just translations,” Palacio said. “It’s cultural. It’s an entire experience for our district because we become advocates for the LatinX/Hispanic community.”

The district is working to make sure it’s communicating the district’s initiatives completely in Spanish, Palacio said.

Cecilia Fortier, an SCS parent and native Spanish speaker, said it’s important for her to be informed and able to actively be involved in her son Andrew’s education, though there are occasional challenges.

“It’s very frustrating to know what your kid is learning, but it’s hard not to be able to explain because it’s in English,” she said. “I can explain to him (Andrew) in Spanish but he needs it for his school in English. What the program is doing very helpful.”

Hispanic and Latinx students make up what SCS calls its largest group of English language learners — more than 7,000, to be exact.

Andrew Fortier is one of them, enjoying learning about the continents on the globe.

“I like it here (in Memphis) because a lot of people come here and we can talk with people that come from different continents and other places that we haven’t come from yet,” he said.

The Spanish speaking community is able to better navigate potential obstacles through SCS programs and services, and with the help of employees like Yesenia Ubvaldo, who’s been an SCS family and community engagement advisor for 10 years

“We want to connect with our families and community,” Ubvaldo said. “So, without a program like this, without bilingual communication, without being able to reach our family, we wouldn’t be able to reach our families. We want to make sure everyone feels included.”

To make sure everyone is included, the school district uses social media platforms such as SCS Newsroom Nota Escolar, Twitter and SCS en Espanol on Facebook.

They also produce TV, radio and “Voces de SCS” podcast programs to connect with families.

“We have created and developed platforms such as podcasts that are completely in Spanish and also have little segments in shows,” Palacio said. “One of them is called “Mi Escuela,” My School, and it tells the stories about our schools in 60 seconds, and my city because we get to communicate with our community stakeholders and share information to reach our Spanish speaking community.”

Back at Kingsbury, they’re also celebrating National Hispanic Heritage month by highlighting the men and women who’ve made a mark on society, as SCS and its bilingual communications program embrace diversity every day of the year.

“I’m proud of the way Memphis has embraced me and my culture, and to see people celebrating Hispanic culture and to see people embracing Spanish as a second language, it’s amazing and makes me really proud to be a part of this city and we are,” Ubvaldo said.

“I’m very proud to be a Latina in Shelby county schools and proud that there are fellow Latino and Hispanic teachers, students and families that are here in the district with us and also sharing their personal cultures and traditions and opinions to culturally rich and bilingual together,” Palacio said.

“My son needs to know about Mexico, the culture, the food and my language. So, it’s important this month for all the Hispanic families and the schools to be proud of this and keep teaching the kids where their parents are from and how rich is that for their future,” Fortier said.

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