In Brockton, MA, nearly half of the students attending local schools speak multiple languages. More than 30 languages are represented in the district, with Cape Verdean, Haitian Creole, Spanish, Portuguese, and French being the most common languages in the district. A quarter of students are identified as English language learners (ELLs).
Given the rich diversity of its student population, Brockton Public Schools (BPS) has worked hard over many decades to develop a strong network of support for its multilingual families. This work is spearheaded by an experienced multilingual team within the district's Bilingual Department, led by Kellie Jones.
During the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, BPS was able to draw upon this strong network in their response to the crisis. The following article shares some of the reasons that network remains strong and what that other districts can learn from their experience.
Multilingual Family Engagement in Brockton, MA
One of the reasons that the BPS multilingual support network is so robust is that it has numerous layers and touchpoints with families in order to promote well-being for students and families alike. This network is comprised of the following teams, many of which include multilingual staff members:
- Bilingual Community Relations Facilitators: The main responsibility of this team, which was formed more than 30 years ago in Brockton, is to assist with communication between families and schools. Facilitators assist with everything from school registration and conferences to school events. They also help interpret around other issues families may be facing. This team has about 12 members, many of whom speak at least three languages.
- ELL Parent Advocates: This team of three members, along with the Community Outreach Director, assists families with social services needed, such as food insecurity, housing, or medical needs. (You can learn more about their work during COVID-19 in our related article and videos.)
- Parent Engagement Specialist: This specialist leads a team of parent engagement liaisons and promotes a wide range of engagement strategies throughout the district.
- Bilingual/ELL Instructional Staff: These educators, who include coaches, teachers, and paraprofessionals, not only deliver instruction but collaborate with families and other staff members around various services and activities that support student success.
- Health Services: These staff members, who include nurses and counselors, work closely with the teams mentioned above to promote health and wellness. Many of the BPS nurses and counselors are also bilingual and have experience working with families in other health settings.
In addition, BPS has hired multilingual staff in other departments throughout the district. For example, Sandino DosSantos, a Data Accountability Specialist for Brockton Public Schools, is a former BPS student who provides technical support for multilingual families in Cape Verdean Creole and Portuguese — a service which proved to be invaluable during distance learning.
It is worth noting that BPS has maintained a strong commitment to this outreach despite difficult state-wide budget cuts in recent years and previous policies restricting bilingual education programs. Ms. Jones credits BPS district leadership for this long-term investment, noting that this support "speaks to the priorities of the district, even in hard times. Something this paramount is essential for the district and for our families and for our kids."
Superintendent Michael Thomas echoes this as well: "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 was long before I came along. It was a culture that I grew up in as a teacher and member of the district."
Lessons Learned from Brockton
Even with all of these systems and structures in place, however, Superintendent Thomas notes that the people are what make the difference. "Our Bilingual Education Department's commitment to our families and our English language learners has been second to none," he says. "It's about the people that Kellie works with and herself and her department. It's about their commitment to the families and to the students...You can have the best structures set up, but if you don't have the people to execute, then your families are not going to get what they need."
So what can other school districts learn from this stellar group of liaisons? Here are some of the secrets to their success we learned from this dynamic team.
1. BPS has hired staff who share families' languages and cultures across the district.
BPS has made a concerted effort to hire diverse staff members in many different roles. That is particularly true within the teams of community facilitators, some of whom have been working for Brockton for multiple decades, such as the following:
- Connie Jonet-Branco, who speaks Portuguese and Cape Verdean, has been working for Brockton for nearly 30 years and is one of the "veterans" of the Bilingual Department. "My families know who I am," she says. "They feel comfortable in talking with me and knowing that I understand their culture and speak their language." Ms. Jonet-Branco says that one of the most important things she does is to empower her families "to be part of their children's education by working with them and letting them know the American education system, their rights as parents, and how important it is for them to be involved."
- Marie Jean-Philippe, who speaks Haitian Creole and French, has worked for Brockton more than 20 years. "I know my community really, really well," she says.
- Manuela Santos, who speaks Portuguese, has also been in this role for more than 20 years. Ms. Jones notes that students see Ms. Santos as their "school grandmother." Ms. Santos says that she was reminded how a small thing can make a big difference to newcomers when she helped a family figure out why they couldn't access their EBT account for groceries when COVID-19 started. The mother was entering the date as she would in her home country with the month written first, followed by the date. Ms. Santos figured out the issue and after the numbers were switched, the mother was able to access her account.
- Lucia Alvarado, who has been working for BPS for more than a decade, is a second-generation Cape Verdean facilitator. Her father worked in this role before she did and she says that she sometimes calls him when she has a question related to a family. "I am so humbled to be here and proud of this work," she says, "and so excited to go to work every day."
- King Wong has been interpreting as a Bilingual Community Relations Facilitator for more than 20 years. One of his areas of interest is using his technical skills to support Chinese parents, students and families, which was a tremendous asset when distance learning started during COVID-19.
- Bee Khang, who speaks Hmong, Laotian, and Thai and is well connected to the Hmong community of Southeastern Massachusetts, shares that families know him (and his whole family!) well and feel comfortable calling him with questions. His wife also made masks for the families at the beginning of COVID-19 and he shares that families would call their house requesting masks.
At the same time, some of the newer facilitators come from roles where they worked with the community they serve now in another capacity. For example, Raymond Exume Stratman worked previously at the Brockton Health Center before coming to BPS, so she had experience working with her own Haitian Creole community as a liaison.
Marie Jean-Philippe: Why I love my work with families as a community facilitator
Marie Jean-Philippe, a community facilitator and liaison for Haitian families in Brockton, talks about her role and her work helping her families navigate different challenges.
Connie Jonet-Branco: How my family's experience helps me support immigrant families
Community Facilitator Connie Jonet-Branco from the Brockton Public Schools, who speaks Cape Verdean Creole and Portuguese, talks about why her partnerships with multilingual families are so meaningful and how she strives to empower her families.
2. BPS has hired staff who understand the immigrant experience.
Having staff who are immigrants themselves or come from immigrant families can be invaluable, not only for those one-to-one interactions but in terms of the staff's ability to build empathy among their colleagues. For example, Ms. Jonet-Branco shares that she was born in Guinea-Bissau in West Africa. She says. "I came to this country when I was 14 years old...I understand what these families are going through because we went through the same thing. And that’s why it’s so gratifying to be doing this job...when we came to this country, we were lucky enough to have people who also helped us. This my way of giving back."
Soraya Presume Calixte, Brockton's parent engagement specialist, agrees: "I am truly honored really to be in this position because I’ve been there and I know too well how it feels when you want to express yourself and you cannot do it. And as a parent, you are unable to help your child. So being in this position really means a lot to me...They are helping their child. They can do it. To me that's really all it’s all about."
In addition, Barbara Lora, an ESOL coach in Brockton, says that she has drawn upon her experience growing up in an immigrant family in multiple ways. For example, she realized early as a coach that she could support her colleagues in their understanding of immigrant families after successfully collaborating with a teacher to improve her communication with an immigrant student's family.
Manuela Santos: How a cultural difference impacted an immigrant family's access to school meal funds
Community Facilitator Manuela Santos shares the story of a mother who couldn't access grocery funds on a debit card provided to families during COVID-19 due to a cultural difference.
3. BPS has made a district-wide commitment to making families feel welcome.
Because of this rich pool of experience, the Brockton team members, including district leaders, know how important it is to help families feel welcome when they first arrive in the district. Ms. Jean-Philippe says, "My main job is to assure newcomers that there is valuable help for them in their native language so they won’t have to worry about anything. I also try to help them navigate into the community and give them all the resources that are available in the city. When they meet with me, they feel like they are like home. They feel so comfortable."
Making families feel welcome isn't only up to the bilingual team members, however. Beth Sullivan, one of the administrative assistants who is often the first person that families meet in the district, embodies that welcoming spirit and knows how to connect families with someone who speaks their language. "Our community is a big family," she says. "And the Bilingual Department is just amazing. And no matter what language, we can assist them in any language. You can see the calmness come over them when they know they’re going to be helped."
This makes a big difference, says Ms. Jones. "Beth greets every single person who enters the main administration building — no matter what their language is, no matter their background, and no matter what they’re feeling at the time — with dignity, kindness, patience and respect.”
Superintendent Michael Thomas: Celebrating diversity in Brockton Public Schools
Superintendent Michael Thomas from Brockton Public Schools in Massachusetts 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.
4. BPS has invested in a range of mental health support for families.
The Brockton team has firsthand experience dealing with the stressful impacts that moving to a new country, immigration issues, poverty, and hardship can have on a family and a student, all of which intensified during COVID-19. "Sometimes they call me crying," says Elizangela DePina, a facilitator for the Cape Verdean community. "They have confidence in me and they trust me. They know they can call me."
Cape Verdean and Creole facilitator Jaime Andrade agrees that the facilitators are an important part of families' support network. "Once they hear that they have someone on the other side that speaks the language and can relate and show a little compassion, they tend to gravitate towards you." Like his colleagues, Mr. Andrade, who has extensive experience working with young people in the Brockton community, has gone above and beyond in supporting his families through COVID-19. When a student whose mom was undocumented was going through a difficult time, Mr. Andrade found a pro bono therapist for the student and attended sessions with the student and his mom. "It's not really my responsibility," he says, "but I felt the need and I’m a parent, and I just felt like it was the right thing to do."
In addition, the team understands that a family's culture may affect whether they are willing to ask for help and what kind of supports they will accept if so. (Learn more about BPS mental health support during COVID-19 from our conversations with Niola Cadet and Claudia Gallagher, who are both bilingual adjustment counselors for the district.)
Soraya Presume Calixte talks about her experience as an immigrant
Soraya Presume Calixte talks about her experience as an immigrant and how it makes her work with families even more meaningful.
5. Staff members support each other as a team.
In addition to these staff members' deep commitment to and respect for their families, the other thing that shines through when talking to Brockton staff is their deep appreciation and respect for each other. "We're like a family," says Silvia Vasquez, one of the community facilitators who works with Spanish-speaking families. "The facilitators, the advocates, the teachers, the administration, we all came together to help our families."
"Our team is great," says Mr. Andrade. "We bounce off of each other. Even if I don't know exactly where to go, we can back each other up." This is particularly important when a new member of the team joins the group. For example, Ms. DePina was born and raised in Cape Verde and speaks Cape Verdean Creole, Portuguese, Spanish, French, and English. She had just joined the Bilingual Department when schools closed for COVID-19. "It’s been a challenge," she says, "but I am thankful for all my colleagues who are very supportive. If I have any question, I know I can count on them. They always are there to help me out to figure out what I need to do. So I’m thankful for that."
In addition, the staff (and district leaders) agree that Ms. Jones has been instrumental in leading this work, as well as providing support to her staff when needed. "The support we get from Kellie and our administrators in the Bilingual Department and our colleagues is just wonderful," says Ms. Jonet-Branco.
This has been especially important because many of the staff members have children or have other care-taking responsibilities. "I'm very proud to be part of this team because this shows me the true meaning of being a team," says Ms. Exume, who has two young children.
A team of penguins
When talking with staff members of the Bilingual Department, there are lots of mentions of penguins. This is because the them has adopted penguins as its unofficial mascot, inspired by the image in March of the Penguins where penguins huddle together to weather a storm. The penguins take turns on the outside of the huddle so that others can move inward to a more protected spot and rest when needed and continue to support each other in this way.
Kellie Jones: Why we call ourselves penguins
Kellie Jones explains why her ELL/bilingual team considers itself to be penguins.
Kellie Jones: We all need to take care of each other
Kellie Jones talks about her leadership role in making sure her team is supported.
6. The staff continue to sustain community partnerships
Community partnerships also play an important role in Brockton's work with families. Ms. Jones says, "We have very strong relationships with the organizations, the religious institutions, and the leaders of the community, and we engage them in crafting a system that’s responsive to the unique local context."
Support during COVID-19
These partnerships were another important piece of the district's response to COVID-19. For example, Leny Monteiro is co-founder and executive director of Sabura Youth Programs, a non-profit whose mission is to serve youth from diverse immigrant families, with a majority from Cabo Verde, and others from the Caribbean and Africa. Sabura also offers parent programs. During COVID-19, Ms. Monteiro worked closely with students in an afterschool program that supports higher education attainment.
She provided a lot of technical support for families who were participating in the program, but even more importantly, she worked on building their confidence. "It's showing them that they can do it and they are the first teachers and that they have their own assets that they can contribute to. A lot of parents have seen that now there’s so much more they can do...So when you’re able to tell them this is what this means, then all of a sudden you’ve given them a little bit more power."
Another Brockton community partner, Ivelisse Caraballo, echoes this sentiment. As the executive director of C-PLAN, a parent advocacy organization, Ms. Caraballo says her organization's mission is to "help parents recognize and use their power and whatever set of skills they have to inspire them to take leadership roles to become strong advocates at their child’s schools, which organically benefits all students."
During COVID-19, this work included a wide range of areas of tasks, including tech support, food access, helping parents navigate the IEP process, and amplifying parent voices around school district decisions. "As Leny stated, they don’t have that confidence and they don’t feel like they’re knowledgeable enough to advocate," she says. "And so these are tools that we use to help them with those, to build on their skills, to build on their public speaking, to help them learn some of the language and the terms that are used in schools."
Planning bilingual programs
Another example of the power of these partnerships occurred before the pandemic, when it came time to choose languages (in addition to Spanish) for the district's new bilingual programs. "Brockton is unique," says Ms. Jones. "Our largest populations, Cape Verdean and Haitian, account for probably 75 percent of our English learners...You have one community that speaks both Cape Verdean Creole and Portuguese and another that speaks both Haitian Creole and French. And to unravel and to think about the complexity, we engaged our communities to see in which languages would there be support and interest.
"So we surveyed and engaged the community. Then we organized a district capacity project, that included the school committee, our local teachers union, and the community to try to problem solve around these issues. We were able to engage all stakeholders to craft something that was really appropriate for our community. We have community members and community institutions with such expertise that they can really support and be a partner in the success of any programs that we want to start."
The deep roots of this work have made a difference in Brockton. "We have a long history of support staff whose job it is to provide meaningful access for families to schools," says Ms. Jones. "And 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. It’s just the way Brockton works, and it’s really, really special."