FARGO — The coronavirus pandemic is forcing change upon the public education system in more ways than one, and local new American families are hard-pressed to keep up and not have their children fall through the cracks.
The Fargo School District is aware that change is needed and plans are fluid, said David Burkman, principal of Woodrow Wilson High School and director of the English Learner or EL program.
After area new American families expressed concerns in a Forum story last week regarding the difficulties they’re facing, Burkman said it may be time for additional changes.
“Is it time to have a different way to provide a more responsive and real-time community partnering with schools to provide those efforts? I think that is a great question, and I think the timing is right for the question as well,” Burkman said.
Partnering with local nonprofit organizations such as ESHARA, a group that's already trying to help new American children get an equitable education during the pandemic, is an idea he plans to raise among other school officials, he said. The pandemic has prompted the district to begin the school year with a mix of in-person and virtual instruction.
“With the virtual piece, and all students having a virtual component, I think now we can say that half of our elementary and middle school students who aren’t doing 100% virtual, over half their time is spent in virtual,” Burkman said.
Brick-and-mortar school buildings bring their own set of details such as insurance and upkeep, but more online tutoring could be less cumbersome and be a proactive answer, he said.
“Does the virtual center require all those details to be worked out? That’s a great sub-question, too,” Burkman said. “It’s a question that I will bring forward as well.”
Being successful at work and school under normal circumstances is difficult for all families, he said, but during the pandemic, life and learning only become more challenging. “I don’t think you’d find a family in the entire Fargo Public School District that could say these were really easy times,” he said.
The district’s English Learner program team consists of 28 EL teachers in 23 different buildings. They work with students and parents, and have programs for teaching English to adults.
Many new Americans work two jobs and don't have time to learn English, although 283 adults have been attending classes at the Fargo Adult Learning Center in the Agassiz building on South University Drive since the pandemic began, according to Jennifer Frueh, the district's adult learning center coordinator.
Arati Heath, an administrative assistant for the district’s EL program, started her job in March, just as the pandemic hit. “This is my normal," Heath said. "I haven’t seen it any other way."
“Uncharted waters. Things are so different, the whole schedule is different,” Burkman said, adding that one difficult aspect of informing new American families about this year's changes was condensing dozens of pages of plans into one sheet that answers many questions.
Heath and her team have had hundreds of conversations gathering information on questions families have, with the top question being what will school look like this year.
“A lot of families were very worried about school, but now that 84-page set of information has been condensed. Most of the time when a family came in, I would ignore all the other pages and narrow it down to the most important information,” Heath said.
Making sure parents are familiar with PowerSchool, an education technology program used by the district, and that emails are checked regularly, are among her top priorities.
“Most of the confusion they’ve had has been answered,” Heath said. “Now that I’m a Nepali speaker and we do have a lot of Nepali families, it’s been a lot easier for them to just call me if they had questions.”
“It has been a lot of outreach calls for those families, because we can’t just provide a document or a video. It’s not a one-size-fits-all scenario,” she added.
Once Burkman condensed the information down to one concise page, the language barriers then have to be bridged, Heath said.
Along with English, Burkman speaks German and some Finnish, and Heath speaks Nepali and some Hindi. Other district interpreters speak Spanish, Swahili, Kurdish, Arabic, Somali and other African languages, and Lutheran Social Services helps with the rest, Burkman said.
But when confronted with a language nobody can understand, the district turns to a tool called Voiance, a company that provides language interpreting services.
“With more usage of Voiance for these past two years, that has been a powerful tool to bring on, meaning anyone can walk into a building speaking any language and within two to three minutes we’re able to understand what their needs are,” Burkman said. “We’re always searching for ways to be better, even in regular times."