By Mary Niederberger
Pittsburgh Current Education Writer
In a Beechview living room-turned-classroom, a Spanish-speaking first grader sits at his district-issued computer from 8 a.m. to 2:40 p.m. each day and tries to make his way through the online lessons provided by the Pittsburgh Public Schools.
In normal times, he would attend Beechwood PreK-5. But the first nine weeks of school in Pittsburgh has been fully online. The district is expected to move to a hybrid model — that will offer students two days of in-classroom learning each week — on Nov. 9.
Sometimes the first grader’s online lessons go well and he is able to complete his lessons successfully. Other times the boy grows frustrated and cries because he can’t understand.
His mother sits beside him, but can rarely help because she also is not proficient in English.
“She cannot understand the teacher. She maybe can understand letters but cannot understand the meaning of what she (the teacher) is talking about,” said Aleira Gilbert, who translated for the mother, who did not want her name used.
“She sometimes uses Google Translate to record the voice and help her to translate, but that is after the fact,” said Gilbert, who operates the Supporting Our Youth Pittsburgh Elementary program for the Latino Community Center.
Spanish-speaking families in the Pittsburgh district have felt a severe disconnect since the coronavirus closed schools last March, said Emily Blair, director of Education for Pittsburgh’s Latino Community Center in Hazelwood.
“The challenge that we see is that Latino and Spanish speaking students are left out of the equation,” Blair said. “No student can be left out of the discussion.”
She wrote two letters to district officials, one in March and another in August, that went unanswered. So she decided to offer the school board first hand stories from parents.
Last week, mothers like the one above, told their stories in a virtual setting to school board members Devon Taliaferro and Cynthia Falls. The two school directors were the only two of the nine-member board to accept the Latino center’s invitation to hear from parents.
Both said they were moved by the stories the parents told and have scheduled a meeting with Superintendent Anthony Hamlet and members of the ESL staff for today.
District spokeswoman Ebony Pugh did not respond to requests from Pittsburgh Current for an interview with the district’s director of ESL programs.
“I literally was in tears because I felt so bad for these mothers who were crying because they can’t help their children,” Falls said. “Somebody has to explain to me why this has gone on for so long. I don’t understand. This is something that should have been dealt with.”
Taliaferro said she is used to receiving emails and public testimony from parents in the district. But hearing from the Latina mothers “was a different experience. These were stories I hadn’t heard as much,” Taliaferro said.
Taliaferro said she too is confused as to why the situation exists. “We know where those students go to school so we should have interpreters involved,” she said.
State data shows that nearly 5 percent or about 1,150 of the district’s 23,000 students are designated as English language learners.
The Latino families are not the only non-English-speaking community struggling with the Pittsburgh district’s remote education program.
Language barriers and unreliable internet are problems for the Somali Bantu families according to two leaders in the community.
Internet Access issues
Shortly before school started, Blair said the Latino Community Center found that a number of families did not have devices or internet access. At it’s annual back-to-school backpack distribution on Aug. 17, where 250 backpacks were distributed, the center found that 30 percent of Spanish-speaking families did not have internet service and 70 percent did not have devices.
The center connected families with the district in order to get computer devices. But internet connections were trickier, Blair said. Though the district had codes for free Internet Essentials through Comcast, families often did not have the required identification or other documentation needed to get the service.
The center then worked to get wifi devices for those students. Blair said center staff is still discovering families who are without internet connections.
Internet access is also an issue for Somali Bantu refugee families, many of whom live in the Northview Heights Housing complex, said Aweys Mwaliya and Siraji Hassan, who is the leader of the United Somali Bantu of Greater Pittsburgh.
A number of the Somali Bantu families receive Comcast Internet Essentials internet service for low-income families. But because their families are large, with multiple children, the bandwidth is often not strong enough for all of the students to be online at the same time, Hassan said.
“Internet Essentials is for up to three or four devices. The majority of the Somali Bantu families have up to six to seven kids going to school so it does not work,” Hassan said.
Complicating matters, Hassan said, is the fact that many Somali Bantu children are left alone because their parents must work.
“Our families, they are getting forgotten. They are just falling through the cracks and kids are getting frustrated if the internet slows down or freezes and then they don’t get their work done. Then they get penalized. If you are not logged in by a certain time you are absent or tardy.”
The district is required by the state Department of Education to take daily attendance during remote learning and the board is poised to vote on a new attendance and discipline policy at its Oct. 28 legislative session
Hassan said his daughter in fourth grade has lost about three weeks of classes because she keeps getting knocked off of the internet. He said he has taken her computer device to the district’s technology service centers but he’s told the device is working and that the problem is the internet connection.
Mwaliya said he has an upgraded internet service at his home so his children are able to log on at the same time. Six of his seven children, ranging in age from 6 to 14, are online every weekday in their virtual classrooms.
But he said that he has heard from a number of other families who are having difficulty keeping their children online.
As a result, both men said, they have heard from families who are receiving notices from the district about their children being absent and tardy from classes.
Hassan said a possible solution to the community’s problem would be the creation of a centrally located learning hub — similar to other supervised learning hubs operated throughout the city — for the Somali Bantu community.
Blair said communications with Spanish-speaking families are not translated or sent to families in a timely manner, sometimes arriving a week or more after announcements are made.
“If you take too long to translate something, then the information is out of date,” Blair said.
In addition, robocalls carrying district announcements came in English to Spanish-speaking families, Bair said.
Mwaliya said the same is true for the Somali Bantu families.
“The language barriers for Somali Bantu parents prevent them from helping their children. We are talking about a community where English is limited for adults, the parents. And writing and reading is limited. And working with the children at home, it was a very big problem before COVID-19,” Mwaliya said.
“So the community is really struggling. The struggle that we had before, it just really increased the challenge.”
“Our challenge is the internet connection and children being left with parents who do not understand and read English and have limited access to technology,” Mwaliya said.
The issue exists in his own home, where he is able to oversee his children’s lessons for a half day. But when he leaves for work at mid-day, his wife, who has limited English proficiency and technical knowledge, struggles to oversee her children’s schoolwork.
“It’s a very tough situation,” Mywali said.
The Alliance for Refugee Youth Support and Education (ARYSE) serves newcomer refugees, mostly from East Africa, in grades K-12.
Most of its students live in the western and southern parts of the city and attend Pittsburgh Beechwood PreK-5, Pittsburgh Banksville K-5, South Hills Middle School and Brashear High School, said executive director Jenna Baron.
Baron said the students ARYSE serves are also struggling with remote education language barriers and lack of timely translated information from the district.
“Because an education system that is tailored to the needs of immigrant families and students does not always exist, the impact of remote learning is just compounded for immigrant learners,” Baron said.
She said she has heard about high school students who have dropped out in frustration.
But Baron also said she believes the district’s ESL department “is doing everything they can with the resources they have.” She said ESL teachers are working outside of their regular hours and even driving to students’ homes to help with computer problems.
The Latino Center as advocates.
Blair said that Spanish speaking families did not know how or where to get computer devices or internet service before the start of the school year so their children could participate in online learning.
The Latino center staff helped families to get district-issued devices and codes for free internet the district is providing through Comcast Essentials. The center staff also advocated for some families to get wifi hotspots when they didn’t have the documentation they needed to get internet service.
Blair said her staff also worked with about 60 families, many of whom do not speak English and have little if any technical skills, to set up their Chromebooks and learn to access the education platforms of Schoology and Microsoft teams that the district is using.
“For some, it was how to get to the online learning sites. For others it truly is hands-on longtime support,” Blair said. “I think the district takes for granted that everyone knows how to do this.”
Falls and Taliaferro said they understand the ESL parents’ frustrations.
“It magnifies it even more when you have a kindergartner who is first experiencing school and there is no interaction with other students,” Taliaferro said.
Taliaferro said she believes the district is trying to manage ESL education as best as it can with staff in the classrooms designated for support.
But the barrier appears to be accessing that support and parents’ inability to understand the language and necessary technology.
Taliaferro said “adult literacy” has to be addressed.
“We need to reach parents and teach them how to be their children’s education monitor. It becomes more of a challenge when those parents don’t speak English and when some have come from refugee camps where they had little access to education or technology,” she said.
Taliaferro said she believes community partner agencies may be able to help with adult education. Then parents will be better able to help their children.
“It’s a very challenging time to be in education and to be responsible for the futures of these children,” Taliaferro said.