Kalamazoo School officials say they’re ready to help Hispanic youngsters get back to classes

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This article is part of the back-to-school series of the Southwest Michigan Journalism Collaborative, organized by the Kalamazoo Community Foundation and translated and published by New / Nueva Opinion and published by Southwest Michigan's Second Wave as members of the SW MI Journalism Collaborative. This story originally appeared in New / Nueva Opinion.

Advocates and educators say they have been working hard to help Latino students – along with all other students – learn and thrive as schools shift from online learning back to full-time in-person instruction.
From revised curriculum to tutoring assistance, and even social-emotional supports systems, ways to bolster students' learning have been built into the Kalamazoo Public School district’s plans to try to assure Latino students keep up with their lessons and succeed academically as everyone tries to move past the COVID-19 pandemic.
Communication is the key, says Irving Quintero, coordinator of Academia Azteca at El Concilio. He says it is needed to help many families adjust to school systems, to the English language and to new technology.
“Some of our Latino people are still trying to get adjusted to the system of how schools work here,” Quintero says. “Then, all of a sudden, they (the schools) went virtual. So the system itself is an issue.”
And he says, “A lot of our community members aren’t tech-savvy. … So they might know how to use Facebook, but they’re not going to know how to use Zoom.”
Irving Quintero stands inside of one of three classrooms used in El Concilio‘s after-school education program. 
El Concilio is a 40-year-old non-profit organization (formerly the Hispanic American Council of Kalamazoo) that provides educational and socio-economic support to members of the Latino community as it strives to equip them to be self-sufficient, preserve their cultural identities, and prosper in the broader community.
Quintero says 95 percent of the people he sees do not have access to an email account. So El Concilio stands ready to help. It tries to teach them how to access the school’s information system, how to find their childrens’ classes, how to look up their grades, and how to contact their teachers. It can act as a go-between for the school system and a family when a student has a broken a school-supplied Chromebook computer, for example. It can loan a Chromebook to a family while it helps get the original computer fixed.
Before COVID-19 caused businesses and schools to close, lots of families in the Latino community had struggled to understand the American educational system, Quintero and others say. About 70 percent of the people helped by El Concilio are new to the United States, he says, and some need their children to translate English into Spanish for them. And there are differences between schools some of them know and those in the United States. In countries like Mexico, for instance, grades are not As, Bs, and Cs. A 10 may be the equivalent of an A and a 9 may be equivalent to a B. At the same time, parents have to adjust to managing work and getting their young children to and from school.
Quintero says a lot of teachers are working hard to manage large classes. “Add to that a kid who is struggling and they (teachers) can’t communicate with the parents,” Quintero says. “So they sometimes don’t go that extra mile because it’s already hard for them to communicate with parents that DO speak the language and DO understand the system.”
Although remote learning has been a struggle for some students, Dr. Natalie Wilson, principal of El Sol Elementary School, says there is no reason to assume that a lot of students are doing poorly. Many have been doing very well with the one-to-one contact they have received online from teachers.
At 604 W. Vine St., El Sol is the district’s only Spanish immersion school. About half of its 352 students are native English speakers and about half are native Spanish speakers.
Dr. Natalie Wilson, principal of El Sol Elementary School. 
Wilson says that virtual instruction has not been all doom and gloom. This has been a year when teachers have had more one-on-one time and small-group time to address specific skill gaps “to the point where kids who had deficits coming in, … because of the extensive one-on-one time they had through virtual instruction, actually closed some skill gaps. And that was kind of a surprise, an unintended positive consequence of virtual instruction.”
When a teacher wants to meet with three children in a regular classroom setting, for instance, she or he has to trust that the other 20 youngsters are doing what they’re supposed to do, Wilson says. “Whereas when you had virtual instruction, they had their (large) morning group, and then the afternoon was all small groups – no distractions,” Wilson says. “That was particularly helpful for our ESL (English as a Second Language) kids.”
Asked how many bilingual education teachers the Kalamazoo Public Schools has, Geoffrey Howe says it has 24 to 30 staffers who are dedicated to supporting ESL (English as a Second Language) students. That includes support for Arabic and other languages as well as Spanish, he says.
Howe is director of Title I, School Improvement and Assessments for Kalamazoo Public Schools.
“As a district, we have a couple dozen people -- in a normal time -- that are designated to work with the English as a Second Language population,” he says. “So we’ve got teachers who are ESL teachers placed in all of our ESL centers. That’s 6 to 10 buildings with designated ESL staff. We have itinerant staff who float between buildings that are not ESL centers. And then we have paraprofessional staff that support as well in each of those ESL centers and also in our building that are not ESL centers.”
Geoff Howe director of Title I, School Improvement and Assessments for Kalamazoo Public Schools.Principal Wilson says a person who has skills in ESL instruction does not necessarily have to be bilingual. “So we have teachers across the district who have certifications in English as a Second Language and master’s degrees in TESOL, which is Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages,” she says. “You don’t necessarily have to speak the home language of the child you’re supporting in order to support them.”
Howe says the school district has continued to engage students this summer with its School Readiness Program, a summer school program that it expects will serve 2,000 to 3,000 students this year. “That is twice the size of what it usually is,” Howe says.
Participants in the in-person program are students who were recommended for the additional help by teachers. Educators hope that participation will help those students get on track in time for fall classes.
“Where we know that kids have struggled, is when families have struggled to stay connected when conditions lend themselves to inconsistent attendance,” Howe says.
Adrian Vazquez is executive Director of El Concilio. 
Adrian Vazquez, Executive Director of El Concilio, says a lot of people in the Latino community lost jobs or made less money during the COVID shutdown. El Concilio, which is located at 930 Lake St. in part of the former St. Joseph Catholic School building, was closed and its staff worked from home from the spring of 2020 until late June of 2021. Vazquez says about 70 percent of the services they provide is in-person services, such as language translations, consultations, and help with documents. The organization’s eight primary programs could not be offered, including after-school tutoring for children, folk dancing (Danza Folklorica), youth soccer, Spanish as a Second Language class for professionals, English as a Second Language for Hispanic adults, and Niñas Del Corazón, an after-school program that supports Latinx girls ages 8 to 15.
“All those were shut down until we had a better idea of how to continue them virtually,” Vazquez says.
Now, El Concilio’s Academia Azteca, a learning center that includes an after-school program and 90-minute tutoring sessions for young people during the school year, is set to resume. During the summer it has been replaced with Science-to-Go, a science, math, reading, and technology program that provides a boxed project or activity that parents pick up and have their children complete.
To assist in the monitoring of the academic progress of KPS students, most completed end-of-year assessment tests for the 2020-21 academic year, Howe says. So teachers know where those students stand. For those youngsters who did not, he says, “We’re looking at things like attendance. We’re looking at course grades. Individual teachers are doing classroom assessments just like they always have. There are a number of tools for progress-monitoring.”
He says the district tries to determine how a student is performing based on specific academic standards and academic outcomes “and our teachers are doing a great job tracking that.”
In the meantime, he says, “We’re still doing report cards. We’re still doing parent-teacher conferences. We offer the MSTEP (Michigan Student Test of Academic Progress) like we have every year. We do the NWEA (Northwest Evaluation Association) math assessment. So we’ve still got a lot of internal metrics that we look at maybe a little bit differently this year because of the conditions of testing. But we feel like we have a pretty strong sense of where students are and where their academic achievement has gone over the year.”
What is available to help young students during the coming school year?
“We’re going to watch all kids closely,” Howe says. The schools will monitor where students are in terms of re-adjusting socially, using a grant it has received from the Stryker-Johnston Foundation for social-emotional supports.
“We’ll have broad-ranging tutoring supports available for students,” he says. “We’re restructuring some pieces of our curriculum. We’re re-writing pieces of our curriculum to build in intentional time for bolstering where kids may have learning gaps. We’ve got identified places in each core content area where kids are going to have intervention and extension based on what they need to go forward and to move forward.”
Asked what Latino students need, Quintero says, “We need a better safety net so they don’t fall through the cracks and the holes that the education system has.” He recommends that teachers have easier access to bilingual interpreters. El Concilio tries to be a culturally sensitive link between parents and teachers and the schools.
While he acknowledges the work done by the schools, Vazquez says, “There are many things that happen but you have to understand the culture. You have to understand the community where they come from.”
Big problems could be avoided if El Concilio’s staff and volunteers were allowed to help facilitate communications between the schools and Latino parents, Vazquez says. Howe says, however,  rules regarding students’ privacy is a hurdle. The schools cannot communicate directly with anyone about a student unless they have a release on file from that student’s family, he adds.
Howe urges parents to look for a new comprehensive acceleration plan that KPS is working to roll out. It is expected to be a “comprehensive plan for how we hope to move forward as a district and make sure all kids’ needs are met,” he says. “It has a number of academic, social, emotional, behavioral, climate, and cultural supports intended to get and keep kids on track.
“It’s mission,” he says, “is to move students and families forward to support their academic, social and emotional needs – moving forward as we return to school in person in the wake of COVID.”

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Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.