Pinellas County Schools expands resources to support Spanish-speaking families

From left are Edgar Samuel Loyola Fonseca, Diego Loyola Gonzalez and Anamarys Gonzalez.

When Anamarys Gonzalez and her family came to Pinellas County from Cuba, it was overwhelming. They were seeking political asylum and trying to adjust to a new way of life. Things were especially rough on her son, Diego, who is 15. In Cuba, he was a promising student. But here, he was struggling in school.

Gonzalez did not know where to turn at first. But she soon learned that Pinellas County Schools has a special department that is dedicated to supporting speakers of native languages besides English. The department is called English for Speakers of Other Languages or ESOL.

Gonzalez connected with staff members, Ericka Reckenwald and Maria Jones, from the district’s Office of Strategic Partnerships.

Reckenwald provided her with information and detailed explanations about how to navigate the school district. And Jones came to her house to help her use the district’s Student Information System, so she could keep track of Diego’s schoolwork.

“She came to my home and showed me what I needed to do with the computer and the best tools to teach my son,” Gonzalez said.

When Gonzalez logged in, the system indicated that Diego was not turning in his homework. He actually was. But Jones and Gonzalez soon discovered that Diego was submitting hard copies of his homework instead of submitting assignments online, which was required. They understood why: In Cuba, Diego did not have access to the internet at school.

After they figured out the problem, Diego learned how to turn in his homework online, and he started getting better grades. He is still adjusting, but Gonzalez said, “He is more focused and happier.”

Meeting the needs of the growing and diverse Hispanic community is a priority for Pinellas County Schools. Today, 19.7 percent of the students in the school district identify as Hispanic.

As the local Hispanic population grows, Pinellas has expanded programs and resources to support Spanish-speaking families. In recent years, Pinellas County Schools’ efforts to support Hispanic families have resulted in greater participation in gifted programs and advanced classes, and record-high graduation rates for Hispanic students and English learners.

While many families are seeing success, there are also many families that are new to the U.S. and new to the district and do not know where to begin.

“We hold their hand and guide them step by step,” said Reckenwald, who serves as ESOL Family Outreach Coordinator. “Families tell me that having that support makes such a difference for them and their children.”

New Let’s Talk About Pinellas County Schools workshops

PCS provides English classes for students who are learning English and hosts numerous workshops to introduce families to academic and social service resources. This year, the district launched a new virtual series called Hablemos de las Escuelas del Distrito Escolar Pinellas (Let's Talk About Pinellas County Schools). The series helps families learn about the school district and support their children's academic success. The virtual sessions take place on the second Wednesday of each month. Families learn about topics such as high school graduation requirements, online learning resources and financial aid.

Reckenwald knows that her support makes a difference. Families follow up with her years later to tell her how grateful they are.

Several years ago, she helped a family when they first arrived from Colombia. Last school year, they traveled across the county to attend the ESOL Community Resource Fair. They stopped by Reckenwald’s table to update her on their daughter's success and thank her.

"You had to see their faces," she said. "They were so happy."

New Hispanic Outreach to engage families

This school year, the district started a new outreach program to ensure that Spanish-speaking parents are engaged in their children’s education. Bilingual Translator Maria Jones was hired for that position and leads various workshops to share volunteer opportunities. She also educates families about a special scholarship program called Take Stock In Children and helps families fill out the application.

Take Stock In Children provides students who demonstrate financial need with mentors and college scholarships. To stay in the program, students are expected to maintain good grades, good behavior, and good attendance. The services start in middle school and continue through high school and the transition to college.

Helping families navigate technology and cultural differences

Jones reaches out to Spanish-speakers from a variety of countries and cultures.

“Spanish-speaking families come from many different backgrounds. We all have a unique way of speaking and our own identities,” Jones said. “We also have diverse needs and struggles, and we need to engage and understand our parents in order to meet their specific needs.”

Family engagement is a crucial factor in student achievement, and Hispanic families are eager to be involved. They show up at school events and are there to support their children. But, Jones said, many of the Hispanic parents she meets do not know that volunteering and mentoring opportunities are available to them.

Gonzalez and her family have only been here about a year, but because of her family's challenges she decided to be a mentor, too.

“Children who come from other countries come with innumerable problems and find it difficult to adapt,” Gonzalez said.

We need to be there for them, she said, because they are our hope for the future.