Language Liaisons Support Students with Unique Languages

In recognition of Multilingual Learner Advocacy Month, we are posting a series of articles highlighting programs in Santa Cruz County that illustrate the guiding principles of California’s English Learner Roadmap.

Teacher instructing students

This article focuses on Principle One:  Assets-Oriented and Needs-Responsive Schools. Pre-schools and schools are responsive to different English learner (EL) strengths, needs, and identities and support the socio-emotional health and development of English learners. Programs value and build upon the cultural and linguistic assets students bring to their education in safe and affirming school climates. Educators value and build strong family, community, and school partnerships.

Pajaro Valley Unified’s Language Support Liaisons illustrate the important role that district programs and personnel serve in fostering school climates where all students are affirmed and valued. They exemplify responsiveness to changing needs that the English Learner Roadmap envisions.

Pajaro Valley Unified School District created the position of Language Support Liaison nearly two decades ago to provide primary language support and assistance to newly arrived English learner students. While staff members at most school sites in the district are able to communicate with newcomer students who speak Spanish, that is not so with other languages.  The Language Support Liaison position fills a critical need for students and families who speak languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian and Tagalog. The Language Support Liaisons support students, assist teachers and help families and site staff to communicate. Currently, the overwhelming need for these services comes with students emigrating from southern Mexico who speak Mixtec, one of the many indigenous languages still spoken in Mexico today.

The number of students whose families report Mixtec being spoken in the home has risen sharply over the past ten years, from just 15 in 2006 to over 350 in 2018, reflecting not only local immigration patterns, but also the district’s concerted effort, across departments, to create greater awareness and acceptance of Mixtec-speaking students, as well as targeted outreach to their families. The work of the Language Support Liaisons is pivotal to these efforts and, in fact, has driven much of it. All three liaisons (Maria Martinez, Natalia Gracida Cruz, and Angela Martinez) agree that one of the most satisfying aspects of their job is that parents go to them for help because of the trust that’s been built over the years. Natalia Gracida Cruz, the first-Mixtec speaking liaison hired nine years ago, says that parents frequently thank them, sharing one comment she heard recently, “My son talks about you a lot. He started at zero and is doing well now.”

Group portrait Mixteco Families

A significant change that Maria Martinez has witnessed in her five years as a liaison is seeing high school students go from hiding their language to now using it freely in class and around campus. “They used to feel embarrassed about their language and didn’t want other students to know that they came from Oaxaca. Now they see speaking Mixtec as normal. Other students no longer see it as something different than what they’re used to.” She believes that the liaison position has helped make this change possible, “They see us speaking MIxtec and it shows them that their language is important.” Natalia also attributes this shift to the fact that the liaisons push in to classes, rather than pulling students out, and they work with students in small groups that include multiple languages, not just Mixtec. “This model removes the isolation and has allowed them to open up a bit more. It’s created a respect that I find personally very fulfilling because we’ve achieved so much over the years.” Language is an important aspect of culture and having their culture valued as one aspect of their identity supports students in becoming members of their community.

The liaisons enjoy the different roles they play in their work: as interpreters in a multitude of different settings, as teachers, as helpers and even as counselors when students and families go directly to them for assistance. “Their past experience is very different from what they’re experiencing here, with new languages and environments both in and out of school. We are like cultural ambassadors,” states Angela Martinez. “Newcomer students may not behave in the way we expect them to,” elaborates Natalia. “Often we have to contextualize for them why they’re being asked to do something, like looking the teacher in the eyes or responding when being spoken to.” In referring to Natalia, one teacher shared, “She is often able to bridge cultural differences, explaining how something may be interpreted differently than intended, or asking to explain a concept in a way that might be more culturally relevant so that the family understands better and so that we have a better understanding how they might be interpreting something said.”

Maria mentions that one challenge they face as liaisons is that “Many of the secondary level students we work with arrive with low skills and teachers don’t always have resources on hand, so it’s a challenge to give them foundational skills and we sometimes have to find our own resources.” But the rewards are many, she says, explaining that what she likes most is, “When I see students so happy to receive our help…their smile and motivation when learning something new.” Teachers and other school staff appreciate the liaisons’ dedication immensely, as do personnel from other departments, such as Migrant, Student Services and Special Education, who rely on the liaisons for interpreting. PVUSD is extremely grateful to have these three liaisons as part of our One Team.

Although over 93% of students with a language in addition to English speak Spanish, more than thirty-seven languages are represented in the county. Mixtec speakers are the second largest group at 3.27%. For more information and resources on Mixtec and other indigenous languages of Mexico, please visit UCSC’s Nido de lenguas site.