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Before the pandemic, Akeyla Ragland essentially worked two jobs: the first, as the teacher of record for English language learners at Tussing Elementary School in Reynoldsburg, a suburb of Columbus, Ohio.

Ragland’s second job: unofficial Spanish translator for every other teacher at Tussing, which enrolls about 600 kids.

Nearly a quarter of students there identify as English learners, up from just 15 percent four years ago. As the number of English learners swelled over time, so too did the requests from her colleagues asking for help when they needed to contact their students’ families.

“Whew, that was hectic,” Ragland said. “I am not a licensed Spanish translator, but I’m always called in. One of our other teachers happens to be Brazilian, so she was always called in if a family spoke Portuguese. It was chaotic. It was exhausting.”

The requests for translation ranged from simple reminders that parents needed to sign a form to helping cope with medical emergencies. But during the pandemic, when communication with families at home became even more difficult, the Pickerington Local School District decided to try something new: the TalkingPoints translation app.

The app, which launched in a few Oakland, California, schools several years before Covid, uses two-way, multilanguage translation to send text messages between schools and parents. Teachers, counselors, nurses and even the transportation department can use TalkingPoints to notify families of missing homework, behavioral issues in class or bus schedule changes. The district pays about $40,000 to use the service and covered the cost this school year with federal Covid relief dollars.

Educators in the Pickerington Local School District exchanged 260,000 translated text messages with families this school year. Credit: Image provided by TalkingPoints

By late February this year, the district had sent and received nearly 260,000 messages, compared to about 150,000 messages last year, said Elizabeth Curtis, the district’s English language coordinator.

“Teachers love it,” she said, “and the families absolutely love it. They tell me it’s made a huge difference. Before, they felt hopeless at times because they couldn’t communicate with teachers or administration.”

Curtis, who moved to the U.S. from Nicaragua with her parents when she was 4, added that she empathizes with families who don’t speak English at home.

“My mom always struggled [with English],” Curtis said. “And she did find school intimidating. There were no translators at that time, and she depended on me to do all the interpreting during school meetings and conferences.”

That’s exactly the type of parent that Heejae Lim, founder and CEO of TalkingPoints, hoped to help when she first thought of the idea in 2014.

When she was a young student, Lim, a Korean immigrant, watched her mom — who wasn’t fluent in English but communicated well enough — grow into a liaison for Korean-speaking families at Lim’s school.

“That stuck with me,” Lim said. “If we believe family-school partnerships are really critical to student success … we need to create that for all under-resourced, multilingual families.”

“If we believe family-school partnerships are really critical to student success … we need to create that for all under-resourced, multilingual families.”

HeeJae Lim, founder and CEO, TalkingPoints

The Family Engagement Lab, a nonprofit in San Francisco, created a similar platform, called FASTalk, that translates text messages between teachers and families in more than 100 languages. During the pandemic, the nonprofit gathered parents and educators in focus groups to ask about their top need to help students succeed.

“Families were just wanting personalized information about how their kid is doing,” said Elisabeth O’Bryon, co-founder and chief impact officer.

Specifically, she added, parents craved tips on how to support their children’s learning, including ways to turn moments in the car or in waiting rooms into educational opportunities. Staff at the nonprofit now create messages that teachers can send to every family in the class with suggestions on how to support learning at home.

From Los Angeles to Louisiana, school districts have used the FASTalk app to pilot initiatives on literacy and Illustrative Mathematics. And in Texas, the nonprofit’s testing a way to use the platform to support home visits that preschool teachers make with families.

Back in Ohio, Curtis said it’s too soon to tell whether the districtwide adoption of TalkingPoints, which started near the beginning of the pandemic, will have an impact on student outcomes. But Ragland, the English language teacher, already noticed a difference.

“I have some students who ask, ‘Can you send something to my mom?’ or ‘Can you tell her that I need some new books?’” she said. “Especially with new kindergarten families, parents reach out and want to know what they can do at home to help.”

Curtis added that teachers can even send text messages to English-speaking parents. ‘I would love if the district that I send my kids to used [TalkingPoints] too. The convenience for families has been a game-changer.”

This story about TalkingPoints was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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