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Helpline for Spanish-speaking parents bridging barriers

LARGO - With Pinellas County's traditionally small Hispanic population on the rise, the school district needed a better way to connect with Spanish-speaking parents. This month, Pinellas County Schools established a helpline for Hispanic parents who don't speak English. In the past, parents were at the mercy of whoever was available when they called — maybe an English for Speakers of Other Languages teacher juggling other duties or an even a student who spoke Spanish. The new helpline allows parents to get information on everything from applications for magnet programs to what days schools are open.
Barbara Aguirre, a Spanish-language translator for the school district, runs the Spanish Parent Helpline, which is staffed from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. When she's not on duty, parents leave their questions on an answering machine and wait. Aguirre concedes that system isn't perfect. Although the helpline is a valuable resource, it's not the only way school employees can work with parents. "I always tell parents that no matter the language they should make the time to go to the school and communicate with the teacher," Aguirre said. Aguirre is the only person manning the helpline, but she isn't the only person who can help with questions. The school district employs 100 Spanish-speaking bilingual assistants; but the helpline provides a more specific service at no extra expense, said Natasa Karac, who coordinates Pinellas County Schools' ESOL program. "We found that there's a lot of district-wide information that parents are not getting access to because our bilingual assistants are not informed about all of those initiatives," Karac said. "Another problem was that other departments were contacting ESOL departments and requesting help because they didn't have any Spanish-speaking staff, which required a lot of going back and forth." Not every school has an ESOL program, either. To qualify, schools must have 50 students who speak English as a second language. In Pinellas, 47 of the county's 141 schools have ESOL programs, and 17 have bilingual assistants. The other 77 don't have any official Spanish translators, leaving parents to bounce among whatever bilingual school staff or district employees may be available when they call. There are no ESOL or bilingual assistants at St. Petersburg's Lakewood High, but Principal Bob Vicari said about six staff members speak Spanish and can sometimes help parents. "We're also lucky because we can use high school students as a resource to translate for parents," he said. Compared to neighboring counties, Pinellas has a small Hispanic population. Though the Hillsborough and Pasco county school districts don't have designated helplines for Spanish speakers, the main switchboard operators for both districts are bilingual. In Hillsborough, most schools have designated Spanish translators, and the Pasco school district has an automated Spanish message for parents who call the district line after hours to help direct their questions. There are no recorded messages in Spanish on the Pinellas County school district's phone line. About 6 percent of all Pinellas students are still learning English, and about 65 percent of those students speak Spanish. But the numbers are swelling. The county's Hispanic population grew more than 71 percent in a decade, surpassing the Hispanic growth rate throughout the state, according to 2010 Census data. Hispanics make up about 14 percent of Clearwater's population, the highest concentration in the county, and they have surpassed the percentage of blacks in the Clearwater area for the first time. "The relatives just keep coming in, and they tend to concentrate within their community," Karac said. "And they're bringing their Spanish-speaking children with them." There are 34 elementary schools with ESOL programs, but there are only seven middle schools and six high schools. As those students move through the grades, the school district may need to place more bilingual instructors in middle and high schools, Karac said. "I think it took a certain number of years for Spanish parents to establish themselves here," she said. "Now, they're more involved in the education of their children; they know more about how the system works, and they want to be informed. So when they call us in their native language and they can't always be helped, they get frustrated. We want their concerns to be communicated." The Spanish Parent Helpline is (727) 623-4414.

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