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How The Baldwin-Whitehall School District Is Trying To Reach Its 650 Nepali Families

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Holly Neimi, an ESL teacher at Baldwin High School, teaches an English as a second language class this semester.

English-as-a-second-language teachers Holly Niemi and Kate Musselman have tracked every call they’ve made to families during the pandemic. The call list, mostly to check in on students, fills up 19 single-spaced pages. Because of that effort they’ve reached all of their Baldwin High School students, but it hasn’t been easy.

The educators have to schedule calls through an interpreter. Sometimes phone numbers change, though, or the parent doesn’t pick up. This summer the teachers made house calls or contacted relatives they had relationships with.

This school year the district is piloting the Talking Points smartphone app that allows teachers to send translated text messages removing the language and time barriers. The Baldwin-Whitehall school district is only using the app with the 654 Nepali-speaking families, many of whom are refugees.

Marissa Gallagher, director of student services, said the first message the district received back from a parent was “This is in Nepali!” followed by celebratory emojis.

“It’s not the answer to everything, but it’s a way that teachers can quickly and efficiently communicate with families … We were getting larger, very important type communications translated, whether those are like a video translation or a written letter,” Gallagher said. “But daily correspondence was something that we were lacking.”

The high school will soon return to in-person instruction four days a week. Niemi said she was using the app to remind families of that change. Since using the app, Gallagher says attendance has improved.

Jean Williams, a social worker at Harrison Education Center, calls the program a “godsend.” She said she has already formed stronger relationships with families.

The pilot program cost the district of 4,200 students about $4,500. But if it expands to use the app for more than the Nepali-speaking population, it could cost as much at $30,000 for a district license.

A handful of local districts including Pittsburgh Public Schools have also approved using the program.

Sarah Schneider is WESA's education reporter. From early learning to higher education, Sarah is interested in students and educators working to create more equitable systems. Sarah previously worked with news outlets in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Idaho. She can be reached at sschneider@wesa.fm.
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