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‘Some families are really struggling': Baltimore Highlands Elementary staff bolster outreach to Hispanic caregivers

Martha "Marti" Albornoz, school-to-community coordinator at Baltimore Highlands Elementary School in southwestern Baltimore County, assists parent Gloria Acurero. Albornoz spent hours every Thursday at Baltimore Highlands Elementary during the late summer months helping Hispanic parents register their children for school and navigate school system resources and programs.
Martha "Marti" Albornoz, school-to-community coordinator at Baltimore Highlands Elementary School in southwestern Baltimore County, assists parent Gloria Acurero. Albornoz spent hours every Thursday at Baltimore Highlands Elementary during the late summer months helping Hispanic parents register their children for school and navigate school system resources and programs. (Charles Herdnon/Baltimore County Public Schools)

Remote learning has proved challenging for most families, but at schools like Baltimore Highlands Elementary, where one-third of the students are Hispanic, school staff have had to work even harder to engage community members who are broadly bearing the brunt of the coronavirus.

When county schools moved online in March, “the biggest challenge we had was connecting with our Hispanic families to provide them the help they needed to get their children online,” said Brian Williams, principal of the southwestern Baltimore County school.

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Williams is referring to the parents and caregivers of Hispanic or Latinx students who often do not speak fluent English, and who, in typical times, rely on their children to communicate messages from Baltimore County Public Schools.

“It wasn’t that they didn’t want to [engage] or they were giving up, they just needed more help,” Williams said.

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That’s where staff members like Martha Albornoz, a Lutherville resident, come in.

During the late summer months, Albornoz, affectionately known as Mrs. Marti to the families she works with, would sit outside Baltimore Highlands Elementary on Thursday mornings waiting for Hispanic parents and caregivers with questions about how to navigate the school system during the pandemic.

Some need help figuring out how to use school-issued laptops for online learning. Others weren’t sure if they could get their children vaccinated in order to register for school, having lost health insurance in the pandemic.

And many weren’t seeking help for students at all.

“'What if I get sick? What am I supposed to do? Where am I gonna go if I don’t have insurance?'” Albornoz was asked. “They were losing their jobs. … They came to me for that reason.”

Social, economic and health disparities are among the reasons Hispanic people have the highest rate of coronavirus infection of any race or ethnic group in Maryland, experts say.

Inequities are expected to persist within the school system, too. According to a report by consultant McKinsey & Co., Hispanic students could fall behind by more than nine months through the virtual setting this fall, if they return to classrooms in January 2021.

“Some families are really struggling,” Williams said.

English is not the native language of roughly 7% of county public school students, and Hispanic or Latinx students make up nearly 12% of the county’s student population. Among students in language learning programs under the Office of English for Speakers of Others Languages, 60% are Spanish speakers, said Erin Sullivan, ESOL coordinator for Baltimore County Public Schools.

Alejandra Ivanovich, an organizer with the Amigos of Baltimore County, a group that provides and connects Hispanic and Latinx families with various services, is juggling classes at the Community College of Baltimore County, a full-time job and outreach while having three school-age children at home.

But she’s lucky, she said.

She can check in with her kids regularly through video calls and owns her home. Many other Latinos work in service jobs and manual labor and aren’t able to telework. Others who have been laid off, and who did not receive government assistance because they lack documentation, are struggling to pay rent while their children adjust to remote learning.

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And the language barrier, which Albornoz said already made Hispanic caregivers less inclined to be involved with school functions, is all the more challenging when communication has become even more essential.

“We’re trying to work and pay for our homes, but we don’t have [phones] and the means to pay for a babysitter or a tutor who can stay with the kids,” Ivanovich said. “The regular folks, the ones that are working in labor service, cleaning, construction, this is the dilemma. What do we do?”

The ESOL office, the Office of Equity and Inclusion and the school system’s communications office have sought to bolster resources during the pandemic for families who don’t speak fluent English.

More full-time staff members were brought on to translate coronavirus updates from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and relay information on food resources and health care services, or provide directions on how to access internet hotspots and use video-conferencing apps like Google Hangouts.

The ESOL department now also is offering training for volunteers for an informal network of Spanish-speaking parents and school staff to try to engage the hardest-to-reach families, into which schools like Baltimore Highlands can opt.

“Because the need is so great in our community and our Hispanic community is so large, to try to service them in an efficient manner, we need more people to help us,” Williams said.

To assist in making learning more equitable, the school system has delivered Chromebooks to students, and Baltimore County has set up WiFi hotspots at 200 locations for those without adequate internet access at home. Although some internet providers like Comcast had offered families up to two months of free internet at the outset of the pandemic, teachers last month were demanding Comcast expand those free services.

The work keeps her busy

By the time Albornoz was hired as the school-to-community coordinator at Baltimore Highlands Elementary in 2018, Williams said the Hispanic and Latinx populations in the Baltimore Highlands area had increased significantly, rising to 25% in 2019, according to U.S. census projections.

Her work kept her busy even in normal times, greeting families in the morning and meeting with caregivers one-on-one throughout the day and after school to connect them with resources and answer questions. Albornoz, who began her career with the school system as a Spanish translator 11 years ago, saved her weekends to call parents whose work schedules prevented her from reaching them during the week.

“The families really trust her,” Williams said. “People feel more comfortable because they know her.”

Absent a translator, Spanish speakers can use the school system’s language line to communicate with school staff through a telephonic interpreter, but “it’s different when Mrs. Marti helps us with a family than if we use the language line,” Williams said.

And the language line is not always easily accessible, Ivanovitch said. She often hears from families who wait on hold for translation services without a response.

Since schools closed in March, Albornoz can’t remember if she’s gone a day without working; since many of the caregivers she helps work 16-hour days, she must be available every day of the week to accommodate their schedule.

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Much of her work involves connecting families with resources. During the summer, for instance, Albornoz kept families informed of food distribution days through the school system’s partnership with the Maryland Food Bank and referred them to physicians who would perform affordable physicals for students without health insurance.

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Often, she finds herself working beyond the scope of her job duties, steering families to resources when they ask about health care services or assistance with bills, and sometimes translating for families who need help going to the bank or to a doctor’s office. She regularly fields calls to her home from residents across the county who have heard her name and are seeking her help.

“They need the help; they’re here for a reason," Albornoz said. "If I don’t do it, I feel like who else is going to do it? How else are they going to learn?”

Ivanovich said local, state and federal agencies are generally out of touch with knowing how to connect with the Hispanic and Latinx communities they’re trying to reach. But she also doubts that there is enough funding, particularly within the county public school system, to address the myriad needs of Hispanic families.

“We just gotta rough this one out,” she said.

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