Welcome Center Supports Hundreds of CHCCS Families
On March 12, the day CHCCS announced the first wave of COVID-19-related cancellations and closures, three newly arrived families completed their children’s enrollment process in the district’s International Welcome Center (IWC). Imagine their confusion when they learned their children would not, in fact, be starting school right away. And imagine the difficulty of explaining the concept of “remote learning” to families who speak little to no English. The team at the IWC had never faced that particular challenge of translation and reassurance, but they all rise to crises and hardships among community families, day after day.
The IWC is the deeply connected hub and heart of the CHCCS Dual Language and English Learners Programs, operating out of the brightly decorated trailer at the edge of the Lincoln Center parking lot. Helen Atkins serves as Coordinator. Her office, and the rest of the IWC space, is usually bustling with activity and filled with some or all of the staff of eight who serve more than 1,400 students and their families whose first language is not English.
There is no “slow” time at the IWC, but the new expressions of need and alarm from families in crisis could keep a staff twice the size busy every day. From food insecurity to medical questions to panic over lost jobs, many of the families served by the IWC are watching their finances turn upside down, and the comforting structure, information and support they receive from their children’s schools are no longer readily accessible.
Atkins notes so many parents and high school students have lost their jobs recently, the gaps in families’ budgets often seem insurmountable. She and her team receive direct calls every day from adults who need immediate translation and explanation for matters of great urgency. “You might know the English words and phrases to get through daily life,” Atkins said, “but during a crisis, there’s so much technical and regulatory language that our families can’t understand.” The standard advice for many emergencies has also changed.
The IWC serves as a liaison between Lincoln Center, the schools and the IT department, helping students and their families understand and troubleshoot technology issues, which is especially crucial with At-Home Learning.
"We have worked very hard to identify families who do not have internet access," Atkins said. They help them sign up for free services that have been made available by local providers, and the district has provided hotspot devices to families who need them. "When these options are not available, we're relying on phone calls, text messages and other messaging apps, like WhatsApp," Atkins said.
The IWC maintains nine hotlines in languages ranging from Arabic to Burmese to Chinese. During the work day, all nine lines are checked at least every two hours for messages, and for some of the languages, part-time translators are looped in to reply to the callers.
The phone calls are not all related to immediate emergencies. Atkins said that some parents of high school students are confused about their children’s status in regard to graduation, service-learning and other important requirements that the district has now adapted or curtailed. Before the Chromebook distribution to elementary students on April 1, the team made more than 200 phone calls to families to make sure they understood the information and schedule for delivery to the designated neighborhoods.
The amount of text generated during the past weeks by CHCCS administrators and staff has mushroomed via emails and website additions. There is so much important, evolving information to share with families and staff. Nearly all of the text is translated into Spanish by Sandra Pereira and Blanca Dominquez. Pereira began translating and interpreting for CHCCS in 2012, and Dominquez came on board last year. They often turn around lengthy messages, surveys and automated phone calls in a matter of hours, or less.
Loyal Wai serves as the Burmese and Karen translator and interpreter, and his work hours lately have stretched long into the night. Rose Gao interprets and translates Chinese documents, meetings, parent conversations and many other tasks. Atkins said, “The unsung heroes are our interpreters!”
Beyond the IWC team of eight staff, Atkins joins weekly online meetings with local non-profits like El Centro Hispano and the Refugee Support Center. They discuss public health updates and newly identified or accelerated needs among their families, and they combine resources and links into a shared document. As often as possible, the IWC staff posts information on the CHCCS Dual Language/English Language Learners Facebook page. “We cast the net as widely as we can,” Atkins said.
Atkins mentioned that her team has been able to designate “leader families” in many neighborhoods. When information must be conveyed widely and quickly, the IWC can reach out to those leaders to contact the other families nearby. They also rely on individual schools’ ESL teachers to call or visit families during emergencies.
The expertise and networking reflected in the IWC support has been built over many years, and the extraordinary range of services is only possible because the team has cultivated such strong relationships with school social workers, principals, ESL teachers and the area non-profit organizations.
One other crucial part of the support team are the Newcomer classroom teachers at Carrboro High School (CHS), Culbreth Middle School (CMS) and Northside Elementary School (NES). Their students come from numerous language backgrounds, and usually have developed the least English proficiency. Their instruction is adapted and delivered in sheltered classrooms.
Katie Jiang leads the Newcomer class at NES. “Newcomer students and their families are facing various challenges from acquiring food to language to learning their new community,” Jiang said. “However, all of the families have expressed appreciation for being in CHCCS and Chapel Hill, as there are so many resources available to them. With the help of social workers, the International Welcome Center, and many more people and organizations, I've been helping parents access these resources, such as finding lunches and food banks and remotely helping them set up computers.”
“One of the main concerns from newcomer parents was how to help their children continue their academic and language studies,” Jiang said. “Fortunately, we've been able to connect on a variety of apps. Students and I ‘meet’ several times a week in groups to stay connected, work on academics, and practice English. By student request, we start all our calls with a Restorative Circle, asking and answering questions both serious and silly. It's been truly heart-warming to see our students support each other academically, socially, and emotionally just like they do in school!”
Zulma Urena has served as the ELL Student Support Advocate with the IWC for several years. She said, “We are trying our best to support students and their families with academic, personal and financial needs. We have already established relationships with families which enable us to smooth the communication between schools and families. By keeping in touch with them, I'm able to see how thankful they are for all the support the District has provided them.”
Atkins recognizes the requests for support are only likely to increase, and for every answered phone call or solution provided, there are many more to be addressed. “It’s amazing though -- in this time of crisis, I can smile at what we’ve accomplished so far,” she said.