Brockton Public Schools (BPS), the local school district in Brockton, MA, serves a diverse student population that speaks more than 30 languages. Over the past couple of decades, BPS has built a robust support network for multilingual families, sustained by a strong commitment from district leaders, even in the face of a tough budget climate. In addition, the school district has partnered closely with the local teachers' union across a variety of issues, including those related to English language learners (ELLs).
We had an opportunity to interview district and union leaders together about their partnership and their COVID-19 response, and we have compiled some highlights from those conversations in the following article. Excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.
This article features interviews with the following Brockton leaders:
- Michael Thomas: Superintendent, Brockton Public Schools
- Kellie Jones: Director of the Bilingual Department, Brockton Public Schools
- Kimberly Gibson: President, Brockton Education Association (NEA affiliate)
A Long History of Serving ELLs in Brockton
Both Mr. Thomas and Ms. Gibson started our conversation by talking about their experiences attending Brockton schools among diverse student populations. Mr. Thomas grew up on the east side of Brockton. "I was fortunate to grow up in a diverse neighborhood that helped shape who I am," he says. Ms. Gibson grew up on the north side of the city and recalls befriending immigrant students and English learners. Those friends remember her, too, and she shares that a few years ago, a friend who had been an ELL came up to her at a reunion and remembered from their childhood how Ms. Gibson had included her when others hadn't.
Both Mr. Thomas and Ms. Gibson also taught ELLs throughout their teaching careers. Mr. Thomas started teaching at East Junior High, which had a lot of bilingual students. "I loved it," he says. "We worked closely with the Bilingual Department. Learning about the different cultures, their backgrounds and working with my bilingual colleagues was a great experience as I first started to learn the importance of bilingual education and then making sure our bilingual students were involved in extracurricular activities, in athletics, the arts and everything else we do with our clubs."
Mr. Thomas also shares the story of a stand-out Cape Verdean student who he coached on the basketball team. "When I coached her in basketball, we had other English language learners on the team and she'd help them understand the instructions. She’s now the manager of multiple Dunkin Donuts locations where I still see her and she talks about how much that experience helped her become who she is now."
Ms. Gibson started co-teaching with her ELL colleagues early in her career and says she has encouraged families to keep using their home languages over the years. "I've always told families, 'Never let your background change. Don't let others tell you to speak English only,'" she says, "I've always encouraged ELLs to maintain their heritage and their language development, because something I saw across the board was a fear from these parents to actually speak their language to me. So making sure those colleagues were with me who spoke the other language was always important to me."
And while Ms. Jones is not a Brockton native, she has immersed herself deeply in the community through her work with the Bilingual Department and has become a passionate spokeswoman for the district's work on behalf of multilingual families. She also celebrates her bilingual staff's long-term relationships with their communities. "We have a long history of support staff whose job it is to provide meaningful access for families to schools," says Ms. Jones. "And so they are really instrumental in ensuring that students and their families have equitable access to all of the information, programs, and services within the Brockton public school system."
Collaboration on Behalf of ELLs
Mr. Thomas, Ms. Jones, and Ms. Gibson have worked in their respective leadership roles and in collaboration to keep ELL support strong and at the forefront of conversations about decisions that will impact teachers, students, and families. Mr. Thomas says, "We’re made up of such a diverse group of students from all different backgrounds and everybody has to be included, because otherwise how can we educate our kids and work with our families?...It’s just part of the fabric of the schools, and it’s long before I came along...The culture overall in the school system is that everybody needs to be included so we can do what’s best for our students and families."
Navigating a difficult climate
In part, this commitment has been possible because the district has been creative in sustaining bilingual education programming during a period of "English-only" statewide policies. Ms. Jones explains, "Massachusetts went through an English-only period until the Look Act in 2017. However, Brockton did not dismantle its secondary transitional bilingual education programs and we kept our dual-immersion program through that time. The community is really supportive and behind the bilingual skills needed for 21st-century communication."
In addition, the district has been creative in developing their own team of bilingual educators. "We also have a program of trying to grow our own educators, such as paraprofessionals who were teachers in their home countries. The district has really supported their growth and professional development so they can become educators in our transitional bilingual education and dual-immersion programs. And we have partnered with a local university to help teachers gain their bilingual endorsement and provide coaching."
Video: Superintendent Michael Thomas on celebrating diversity in Brockton Public Schools
Superintendent Michael Thomas talks about his early teaching experience in a bilingual program and the district's commitment to making Brockton a welcoming school district for all families.
Crisis Response: COVID-19
Building upon strong family partnerships
All of this infrastructure allowed Brockton to respond swiftly and effectively to the COVID-19 crisis once it began and to adapt their response as the crisis evolved. Mr. Thomas says, "It was easy to transition because the Bilingual Department was able to reach out to parents; it was so important to make sure that parents were receiving information in real time in their native language. And you couldn’t have a delay in that, because that meant that people weren’t going to eat and people weren’t going to get the benefits that they were entitled to."
A key link in that chain of communication was the Bilingual Education's diverse team of community facilitators and ELL parent advocates, many of whom have worked for the district for a long time and have deep relationships with their communities. In addition, many of these team members had been given district cell phones that families could contact a number of years ago. Ms. Jones explains, "When COVID hit and schools were empty, parents still had someplace to go. They knew who to reach out to. And so we publicized the lists of all the community facilitators and advocates everywhere we could."
In addition, Ms. Jones notes that the district had extensive experience in communicating with families in multiple languages. "When COVID hit and we needed to get information out of families, it was normal practice to translate everything into multiple languages and send out translated phone messages. Those practices have really served us well during COVID and serve us well today."
In addition, adjustment counselors could volunteer to get district phones in order to continue to reach families. Mr. Thomas says, "That was important to make sure that we were serving the social/emotional needs of not only our students, but also their families because they were dealing with so much — from family members passing away from COVID and job loss to all the other effects of COVID. To make sure that they could pick up and call somebody right away, we ordered more than 50 cell phones and we were able to set up a main line that directed them to somebody in their native language. And so a bunch of us made deliveries and got the phones where they needed to go. Again, it goes back to messaging that our top priority was making sure that we were supporting the people’s mental health and making sure they were taking care of themselves."
Ms. Jones also shares that the parent engagement specialist in the district, Soraya Presume Calixte, speaks Haitian and French and started having call-in sessions twice a day when families could ask questions. She also notes, "The central office staff didn’t hesitate to help any family who came to the central administration building or the parent information building for anything. So we had parents show up who needed food, clothes, or help with the computer. Anything that was needed, we had resources at both sites to be able to help them in the major languages. And I think kind of eased some of the anxiety among the families."
To learn more about this particular aspect of Brockton's outreach, see Supporting Mental Health During COVID-19 in Brockton, MA.
Video: Providing staff with cell phones to reach families
Michael Thomas and Kellie Jones describe their outreach strategy of providing multilingual staff with district cell phones in order to support family communication.
Building a District Design Team
In addition, the district was able to draw upon the "district design team" blueprint that Mr. Thomas had drafted as deputy superintendent in collaboration with Ms. Gibson, the BEA president. Mr. Thomas explains that the goal was to build a team across the district to develop a new strategic plan that included educators from every grade and department, leaders from the Bilingual Education and Special Education departments, principals, union leaders from each of Brockton's unions, and family members.
The focus of that team shifted after the pandemic began, but the structure was already in place to collaborate around issues such as re-opening schools and responding to different policies at the state level. Most importantly, says, Mr. Thomas, "It gave everybody a voice...I think it was 75 people when it was all said and done. And for that many people, I was actually very surprised how well it worked."
Ms. Jones adds, "One thing that the district design team did was establish a communication team with bilingual community relation facilitators and the director of communications on it. So from the very beginning all of the work, all of the communication with families and students was planned with the intent of reaching all families. In addition, there was a Bilingual Department staff member on every committee or sub-group. Including the community facilitators in that team is something that we do because that’s who we are, but we know it’s not always the same in other districts."
The district design team is also an example of the district-union collaboration that has remained strong during the pandemic, including around ELL families. Ms. Gibson, the BEA president, says, "The biggest thing I was hearing from teachers was their concern for their students and making sure they had the resources...Our ELLs actually had a number of COVID cases within family units...as a team, all of us were more worried about the family unit and what they needed."
She also says, "The district never ever insisted that they talk to these families outside of their contractual hours, but it was something that they wanted to do. And Mike and I for the most part supported everything. We just wanted to make sure they weren’t imposed on...But everyone pitched in and wanted to support families."
She also shares the following example of collaboration between the district and the union: "One of the major things we did was during our bargaining sessions; we actually restructured the English language coach positions and schedules to help support families. They were very willing to do so...and it was not difficult to do. Mike and I had the conversations, and it made sense for our population. It didn’t make sense to have English language acquisition coaches just working with teachers during the school day when they could be working with families too."
Video: Brockton Education Association President Kim Gibson on supporting ELLs during COVID-19
Brockton Education Association President Kim Gibson talks about the ways in which staff collaborated to support ELLs during COVID-19.
How the district and union work together
Ms. Gibson continues, "One of the things that has shown through with some of my members and even the other union presidents is that they have appreciated the fact that Mike and I work together collaboratively. In addition, one of the other union presidents actually reached out to me back at the beginning of the school year and she thanked me because I made sure that all the unions were included in the conversations. Both Mike and I wanted to make sure all unions were included because there are other unions, including paraprofessionals, the administrative assistants, the technology, instructional technology specialists, school police, custodians, and food services. There’s not one position that’s more important than another in a district, especially during a pandemic. Every single person was really key in supporting our families, no matter what positions we held and everyone did come together."
Mr. Thomas chimes in, "I'll add to that, because Kim and I spend a lot of time together. And I try to do what’s best to support all employees in the school district, and our number one goal always has been their safety and their emotional well-being. And that’s been the message Kim has given to all her members too. Because Kim and I sent out joint memos, and it’s not only to BEA members, it’s pretty much to the whole district. And that’s been the theme right away, is that it goes well beyond academics about first taking care of people and having to do that when you have so many things you’re dealing with."
According to Ms. Jones, "Just like Mike, who is very humble, so is Kim. The number of hours that Kim and Mike together have dedicated to trying to navigate these waters on behalf of the teachers and the other kind of staff members of the district really needs to be recognized."
Superintendent Michael Thomas and BEA President Kim Gibson discuss collaboration in Brockton, MA
Superintendent Michael Thomas and BEA President Kim Gibson talk about their frequent collaboration at the district level in Brockton, MA.
Creating a Positive Culture
Both Ms. Gibson and Ms. Jones also agree that Mr. Thomas has worked diligently behind the scenes to reduce the impacts of the crisis on staff employment. "When Mike came into the role of superintendent, he had a very simple mantra," says Ms. Jones, "which is work hard and be kind to people. And that has really resonated with the staff, leadership, and families...And Mike has kind of continued through this pandemic to say teachers, staff, custodians, nurses — we all have to attend to our own social/emotional well-being as well. I've always been taught, and I grew up this way, that you never ask anybody to do something that you're not willing to do yourself," says Mr. Thomas.
He also credits the families with their patience and support during this difficult time. "I just want to thank our parents and families. They’ve been very supportive...And I think that’s a testament to the job that the teachers and the staff have done to connect with them on a daily basis...And I want to thank the parents for their cooperation, because it’s not easy...losing jobs, trying to find day care, I want to thank them for their support of the Brockton Public Schools, but I think they’re so supportive because of the relationships the teachers and the support staff have built with them over this last year."
In addition, the district has worked with the union and community partners to provide some extra supports throughout the pandemic. For example, the district and union partnered with the Brockton Police Department during the holiday season to deliver gifts, gift cards, and winter jackets to students. Ms. Gibson says, "I’ve heard nothing but rave reviews from the parents because it actually showed those children a different side to the Brockton Police Department and it showed the teachers working with them...Because, like Mike said, we had parents who were laid off. They couldn't work because their children are home with them."
Lessons learned about self care
When asked about the ways they are taking care of themselves during this stressful time, they all talked about how their perspectives on this have changed during the pandemic. "As leaders, we often say to our staff, 'If you don't take care of yourself, you can’t take care of your students,'" says Ms. Jones. "But I wasn’t necessarily practicing that myself. And so it’s been a learning curve to me that if I need to take care of my staff and my families, and I also need to take care of myself. And so that was a hard lesson that I learned this year."
Mr. Thomas agrees. "You put yourself as an afterthought in these positions. And it’s funny, what this pandemic has taught me is that you can’t really do that; you really have to make sure you take care of yourself. We actually did a self-care workshop and I really didn’t want to go. I was raised to just push your way through it. And I actually enjoyed it! It just told you a lot that you really, you really have to take care of yourself. And if you don't, you can’t be an effective leader."
"My family keeps me grounded," adds Ms. Gibson. "And I am trying to go for more walks, and talking to people and not letting things fester. Even with Mike, we have some very difficult conversations, but we work through them and move on."
BPS District Leaders Michael Thomas and Kellie Jones: Learning how to take better care of ourselves
Brockton Public Schools Superintendent Michael Thomas and Bilingual Education Director Kellie Jones discuss their realizations that they needed to take better care of themselves during COVID-19.
Mr. Thomas, Ms. Jones, and Ms. Gibson all recognize the hard work that the Brockton staff has been doing to partner with families, as well as the value of the staff's relationships with families. "Their commitment to our families and our English language learners has been second to none," says Mr. Thomas. "And the structures can be there, but it’s the people that are doing the work that make the structures work well."
Ms. Jones agrees and also acknowledges the district's support at all levels for multilingual families. "It's just the way Brockton works," she says, "and it’s really, really special."