Alachua County Public Schools works on language accessibility

Translation services

Over a year ago, local immigrant advocates began pushing Alachua County Public Schools (ACPS) to introduce more services for families that do not speak English. As they watch the district’s changes come into effect, the advocates have expressed cautious hope for improvement, but say there is much more to be done. 

Representatives from the Gainesville Immigrant Neighbor Inclusion Initiative (GINI) first began their push with ACPS a year and a half ago, according to Veronica Robleto, a GINI leadership committee member and program director for Human Rights Coalition of Alachua County. Robleto said that push, involving a listening session and multiple meetings with school officials and district staff, resulted in ACPS contracting an interpretation and translation service called LanguageLine. 

Veronica Robleto
Courtesy of HRC of Alachua County Veronica Robleto

District spokesperson Jackie Johnson said LanguageLine is one of several moves the district has made to address language accessibility. A year ago, the district hired a language interpreter/translator, who works directly with parents and students, as well as coordinating LanguageLine. 

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The district’s website has an option to translate into over 200 languages and the newsletter sent through a platform called Peach Jar can be translated into Spanish or English, according to Johnson. Three highest-need schools have English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), and ESOL has a contact at every school. 

Over the summer, the district began sending out duplicates of its parent notifications—one copy in Spanish and one in English. Johnson said staff has even figured out a way to send only Spanish notices to families that have marked themselves as Spanish-speaking in the home. English-speaking families should only receive messages in English. 

Adriana Menendez, social service manager for the Rural Women’s Health Project, said having programs for ESOL families is only effective if staff is fully trained across the district. Part of Menendez’s role includes answering a referral line for immigrant women who need help with health services, but she said many contact her needing school documents translated. 

To check on the district’s progress, Menendez occasionally calls groups of 10-15 schools, speaking Spanish as if she were a parent who does not know English. She said “front line” staff such as receptionists have hung up on her and sent her to voicemail as if they were untrained on the LanguageLine program. 

Menendez said GINI gave ACPS a deadline of Oct. 31 to get all its staff appropriately trained on LanguageLine, and now the advocates will be following up with parents to see if their experience has changed. 

This will not be the first time GINI has reached out to get input from immigrant families. At the School Board of Alachua County’s (SBAC) Oct. 17 meeting, Robleto presented the board with a petition signed by over 600 area residents saying the school board is in violation of Title VI of Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Opportunities Act because it has not provided equal access to school programs, activities and services for students and parents with limited English proficiency. 

Laura Gonzales
Courtesy of UF Laura Gonzales

According to U.S. Census data, in 2022, 14.5% of Alachua County speaks a language other than English in the home. Just over 11% of the population is foreign born, according to the same data. 

The problem is not limited to Spanish-speaking families, either. Laura Gonzales, director of Language Access Florida, said there is no way of telling how many languages are spoken in Alachua County, but she has interviewed people who speak more than 60 different languages. 

Gonzales said that because Spanish is so widely spoken, it is an appropriate first step that should help the district identify what other, smaller languages are being overlooked. She said the district has made good progress in amplifying the need for language access, but now she wants to see it properly address the needs. She said part of the problem may be an assumption that multilingual parents do not want to be involved in their children’s education, interacting with schools. 

“Many of the parents we have spoken to really do want to be involved,” Gonzales said. “They really do care about their children’s education, but they just don’t see a pathway for communicating with their schools. I think if we can develop that pathway, we can make a stronger, more participatory school system for everybody.” 

At the Oct. 17 SBAC meeting, the board directed the superintendent to start work on a language access plan, upon Gonzales’ suggestion. Johnson said Deputy Superintendent Cathy Atria has started work on creating that plan, but it is in the early stages. 

Gonzales said such a plan would help the school district assess its current situation and make a plan for how to address those needs in the short and long term. 

Robleto said the district needs to put in the work to train its employees on intercultural sensitivity as well as technical skills such as using LanguageLine. 

“The way we’re going to know this is all working is that, when someone that doesn’t speak English tries to access their school that they are communicated with in an appropriate manner,” Robleto said in a phone interview. “It’s not just the technical aspect of connecting to an interpreter, but it’s also understanding and how to treat someone with respect, and not be dismissive because they’re not speaking a language that you understand.” 

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