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Communicating in a Diverse School District

Madison City Schools is not only growing in enrollment. It is also increasing in diversity.

Twelve percent (12) of the district’s student population speaks a language other than English as their native tongue. That’s more than 1,400 students spread across 86 different languages.

The 86 primary languages is up from 71 in 2018 and 52 in 2016. Spanish is tops, followed by Chinese, Arabic, Korean, Vietnamese and Japanese. Japanese is the fastest growing native language, doubling in number just in the past year. The rapid rise in Japanese-speaking students is mainly due to families moving in for the new Mazda-Toyota plant just west of Madison.

Having international students adds a rich culture to any school district. Diversity in classrooms helps foster open mindedness and new perspectives, promotes growth and student reflection, broadens awareness and tolerance, and better prepares students for diversity in the workplace. It also can promote empathy and student achievement, reduce prejudice, and strengthen creativity. Dr. Natalia Dooley, Federal Programs Coordinator for Madison City Schools, says an international student base helps prepare them for their increasingly globally-connected world. “We want to make their adjustment to Madison as welcoming as we can, just as we would want if it was us having to adjust to a new language and culture.”

Communicating with such a broad group of English Learners (EL) led Madison City Schools to some creative tools to do so.

The district continues to support its growing language diversity through contract interpreting and translation services. It offers a “Talking Points” app that can automatically translate email and text messages with EL families. There has been staff training to raise awareness about language barriers. The Talking Points app includes an on-demand “human” interpreter feature to help navigate through terms/concepts that are difficult to comprehend. Additionally, the District has enlisted a contract with Foreign Language Services for large documents and legal language needs.

These translation services have been particularly helpful this school year with all the specialized messaging coming from COVID-19.

Under the pandemic, the district expanded translations to include district webpage updates, FAQs, video messages from the superintendent, and various correspondences.

The district team works closely with its language services to ensure that newcomer families can get the communications in a language they are more versed in.

Of course, interpretation services aren’t the only example of how MCS is trying to serve its growing EL population. The district has been making great strides each year with its EL summer camps, which helps those kids hone their English language and culture skills.

The district’s cultural bridge doesn’t end with simply helping EL families understanding English.

Madison City Schools has also broadened its curriculum in recent years to include an introduction to World Languages course in middle schools, expanded its Spanish instruction to include all elementary grades, and established a Seal of Biliteracy program for graduating seniors who demonstrate proficiency in two or more languages.

(Article collaborators: John Peck, Natalia Dooley, Carol Bohatch)


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