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How Lowell Public Schools Overcame Language Barriers

Sep 15, 2023 | Blog, Dashboard, Education, Stories

Every parent plays a crucial role in their children’s education. However, in the United States, language barriers often hinder parents with limited English proficiency from engaging in their children’s educational journey.

In this article, we share Lowell Public Schools’ story of providing multilingual accessibility in their special education parent forum. We spoke with Erin Upton, Assistant Director of Special Education, about their effort to overcome language barriers for multilingual parents using translation technology like spf.io.

Creating an accessible and inclusive space for multilingual parents

Located in Lowell, Massachusetts, Lowell Public Schools is one of the largest districts in the state with over 14,000 students. In the district, around 4,180 students are multilingual learners who speak over 70 languages. The three most dominant languages in the district are Spanish, Portuguese, and Khmer.

Due to the diverse backgrounds of their multilingual learners, Upton shared that the Special Education Department aimed to provide translations in the parent forum for parents whose first language is not English. She believed that providing translations would increase parents’ participation and engagement in the forum.

For greater accessibility, Upton mentioned they hosted the presentation at three different locations. “Our city is very large, so it was important to try to have as many parents attend as possible without creating any further barriers by only having it on one side of the town or the other,” said Upton. The forum was also available online for those unable to attend in person.

While seeking a solution, they explored different platforms, such as Zoom and Google Meet’s closed captions feature. However, Upton addressed their concern about the platforms’ limited language options and inability to provide simultaneous multilingual translation.

Recognizing these challenges, Upton consulted with Greg Limperis, the district’s Director of Technology, who suggested exploring spf.io. She reached out to spf.io and learned that its AI-powered technology offers a unique capability to generate captions in multiple languages simultaneously.

Spf.io’s impact on language inclusion

Upton mentioned that the buy-in process to purchase spf.io was easy, given their longstanding need to provide language access. She shared that the district expressed interest in observing the use of spf.io through the parent forum.

In addition to translations in Spanish, Portuguese, and Khmer, they also provided Swahili due to a community partner’s feedback. With the addition of another dominant language, they hoped to get more families to participate in the forum.

Upton appreciated the help from spf.io’s team in resolving technical difficulties in the first two forums. By the third forum, they had resolved the previous issues, and the presentation went smoothly.

The Audience View during the parent forum

The Audience View with the Spanish translation of what the speaker says

The forum was live-streamed on YouTube, and on-site attendees received handouts containing a QR code to access the presentation. This QR code directed them to the webpage where they could select their preferred language for translation. 

Spf.io positively impacted multilingual parents attending the forum, as Upton saw more participation from them.

 “The biggest impact was [that] we were able to get some families that might not otherwise participate in a parent forum to the event and able to make it accessible to them. So, that was a really big success for us.”

– Erin Upton, Assistant Director of Special Education

Moreover, spf.io’s accurate translations and timing of the captions were very beneficial in enabling parents to keep up with the presentation.

Expanding possibilities of future multilingual events

What’s next for Lowell Public Schools’ journey of multilingual accessibility?

Lowell Public Schools’ experience using spf.io has paved the way for more multilingual events in the district. Despite a smaller turnout than anticipated, Upton considered the parent forum a great start toward overcoming language barriers. She believes spf.io can further enhance parent engagement in future multilingual meetings.

Given Lowell’s diversity, Upton highlighted spf.io’s role in fostering inclusion, whether in special education parent forums or monthly meetings. While their focus is to make more inclusive parent forums and meetings, Upton can see other departments exploring spf.io. They have recognized spf.io’s positive impact in the parent forum and are considering it for future meetings and events.

As Lowell Public Schools continues to progress, your school can also embark on this effort to ensure every parent’s involvement in their children’s education, regardless of their language and cultural backgrounds.

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