How Gervais School District Bridges the Language Gap
“Every child deserves a good education, no matter where they come from or what language they speak,” said Dr. Creighton Helms, Director of Student Services and Federal Grants at Gervais School District in Oregon, USA. Established in 1834, this district has many multilingual learners with limited English proficiency. In this article we share Gervais’ story of helping newcomers and refugees navigate a new world through translation technology like spf.io.
The Language Gap
Despite being a relatively small school district, Gervais ranks in the top 5 districts statewide, per capita, in accepting newcomer students with limited English proficiency (LEP). Approximately 50% of the student body either speak a language other than English or come from homes where a different language is spoken.
Dr. Helms said, “We have a large number of students with either no or limited English proficiency who struggle with asking some of the most basic questions, such as ‘Where’s the bathroom? When is lunch? I’m hungry, I’m tired, I’d like to go home,’ or to have conversations with their friends during recess or lunch, like ‘What are your favorite sports and what do you like to do?’ Those kinds of things that address the needs of the whole child.”
Bilingual educators are also very difficult to find in Oregon and competition for such talent is fierce, often requiring bigger budgets to win. Having a majority of teachers speak only English with a high LEP population is very challenging.
How Gervais embraces students from many language backgrounds
Dr. Helms believes the children of his district deserve every equitable opportunity to learn as any other student in the state. Language inclusion has the power to bring diverse students together and embrace them as part of the school. “The two things that will bring you and I together more than anything else is a home cooked meal and understanding language. I can’t give all my students burgers from my home grill, but I can [give them] language.”
They chose to use some of the grant money to purchase spf.io for classroom teaching. Spf.io enables students who are not fluent in English to learn in class together with their English-speaking peers through the translation of materials into their own language. Teachers can continue instructing in English while benefiting from spf.io’s AI-powered live captioning and translation.
Spf.io’s impact on language inclusion at Gervais
Back in November 2022, four Ukrainian students with limited English proficiency arrived at Gervais School District. With only one staff member fluent in Ukrainian in the whole district, the language barrier posed a significant challenge. Dr. Helms discovered spf.io online and evaluated if it could bridge this gap. Initially concerned about price, Dr. Helms was surprised to find it affordable for his schools and became convinced it was the right solution to help his students.
To train teachers on using spf.io, Dr. Helms set up a landing page on a school district website
“One of the tremendous blessings of spf.io is that it provided a sense of normalcy and safety for these students amidst the chaos of change. They could at least see their familiar language while being in school.”
Teaching in the classroom
Multilingual education solutions like spf.io amplify a school district’s ability to fill the language gap for their students. Prior to using spf.io, Gervais, had very limited resources for real-time interpretation and translation in languages spoken by students. Now students who speak different languages like Ukrainian, Russian, Spanish, and English, can all learn together in class. They can sit next to each other, receive instruction simultaneously, and understand the content without slowing down the learning process.
Here’s what a few teachers had to say from their experience. They were not mandated to use spf.io, but came to use it organically.
What teachers have to say about spf.io
Teachers appreciate how easy it is to set up a session and get it going. According to Dr. Helms, many teachers can seamlessly transition from one class to another within a brief timeframe, typically around 30 seconds to a minute. They can swiftly switch to a new session or display the QR code, enabling the incoming class to promptly engage with the platform. This approach ensures that both students and teachers can benefit from how spf.io improves language accessibility in the classroom.
So how was Gervais able to build the capacity to support these multilingual learners?
According to Dr. Helms, having a strong network of educators and open communication help solve problems and secure grants. Despite how busy he is due to the day-to-day workload, he spares his time to communicate with his peers and be vulnerable about what his district needs.
For example, when Gervais School District encountered difficulties in evaluating Ukrainian transcripts, they reached out to neighboring districts and collaborated with the Oregon Department of Education. Through this collective effort, a viable solution was established with the support of The Willamette Education Service District, a local service agency. The agency agreed to hire experts that can translate the transcripts for $10 per transcript.
Networking also creates a collaborative environment and a wealth of information that can increase the chances of securing grants in the long run. For instance, Dr. Helms’ networking efforts enabled him to uncover grants he hadn’t come across before and he similarly provides valuable insights to others in the network about grants he is familiar with.
Another crucial takeaway is the significance of taking ownership of their district’s stories and actively advocating for their needs. When pursuing grants or resources, it is essential for school districts to be sensitive towards the issues that are happening. This helps to craft compelling narratives that accurately portray their unique challenges and successes. Dr. Helms shared his perspective, saying:
“…when I share my message, I get to know my message so well: that my kids are not numbers. My students have homes, and they have desires and they know what it is that they want to do today and tomorrow and after graduation, etc. And when you put yourself in that perspective, then it becomes much more of a moral imperative on my part, to seek out, write, and fight for the grants.”
Gervais did it, and guess what? Your school/district can too.
With determination and empathy, you can provide an inclusive education for multilingual learners in support of their future dreams and goals.