Bridging the Language Gap

A Q&A with AISD Public Relations & Multicultural Outreach Director Alex Sanchez

Austin Chronicle: You've already packed a lot into your career, with time in both the private and public sectors and a run for office, but it was all in Colorado. What was it about this position in Austin that made you say, "Yeah, I'll move down there?"

Alex Sanchez: It was very interesting how it all worked out. What really sold me was the fact that I came into Austin and I was able to meet with the leadership here. The energy, the passion, the commitment of [Superintendent Meria] Carstarphen, her vision, but also the leaders she has on her side. I can tell you that [Chief Schools Officer] Paul Cruz, [Chief Academic Officer] Ramona Treviño, [Chief Performance Officer] William Caritj, and others, in just meeting with them casually and hearing what they want to do here in Austin and for Austin's kids, that sold me. What I always said is, I work for people, not organizations. The people make the organizations, and I think that's what sold me, really hearing and seeing the passion and commitment people have. I was also very clear, as I was being engaged by this administration, in looking at Austin as my new home, my next home, is that I wanted to know that Austin and the administration was ready to make that commitment. We've been talking a lot about multicultural outreach and being strategic and being intentional and having more authentic engagement, which takes energy, which takes resources, and sometimes takes political courage. It's not my first rodeo, and as I've gone around the United States, talking to my counterparts in other urban school districts, very few urban school districts, very few have created capacity in their communications shops to truly engage with today's parents. Sometimes, in some communities, it can't be in English, and there's many publics and many constituents and all of them are important. Just as a civic leader or civic-minded constituent or public is important, then certainly the parents or guardians of our kids are obviously important as well. So oftentimes what school districts fail to do around the country – it's not unique to Denver, it's not unique to Austin, and it's not unique to any specific school district – as a general statement, we sometimes as school districts fail to directly communicate with our families. We just simply have not spent the time and energy and resources to do that effectively. Because it's easier, honestly, to do it in English. It's easier to do the same cookie-cutter tactic. It's easier just always to work with the single daily. It's easier to be on camera with the beat reporter who covers us. It's easier to engage those that are already watching. The traditional nonprofits, the advocates, the activists, it's easy because they're there. And regardless of whether we want to or not engage them, they will engage us. So what's not as easy is to really have a strategy that puts the mechanisms in place and the organizational charts in place to say, "How do we get new families in a place where they feel comfortable, where they can literally raise their hand and be part of the conversation?" And it's different than just putting on little headphones and talking to the family in a language different than their own. It's different when you're facilitating, for example, a discussion on school reform and you put someone who understands the culture and the language of the audience, and you do it in a small group setting. There's a lot of stuff that's so important, and things that we know have been successful in other communities. So as I started looking at Austin and I started to engage this administration, I asked those questions. Are we, as an Austin community and a school district, ready to invest, and they said yes. ... I received a call from [former Executive Director Office of Planning & Community Relations] Janis Guerrero, back either in January or February of 2011, when the idea of rebuilding and reforming a team that was more linguistically and culturally effective with all of its publics.

AC: Austin is becoming much more racially diverse, and it's not just the white/African-American/Hispanic tick boxes of Texas Education Agency forms. The Asian community is growing, there are a large number of communities with differing cultural needs ....

AS: Not to mention refugees.

AC: You go to the International School, and you listen to the number of languages that are spoken. How do you reach out to so many communities without having a translator for every family?

AS: I can tell you, as a communicator and a community engagement professional, what I do know is that translation and interpretation is probably the least effective tool. What you want is to create an environment where you are hiring professionals that can do communications and can do engagement but can also teach and can run schools that reflect the diversity of the actual student population. For example, in the Denver model, the multicultural outreach office alone had roughly 45 people who worked day in, day out, in providing language support. So that's traditional translation, interpretation, but, more importantly, run all the other initiatives that really work hands-on with communities. We worked with 10 different communities, so that meant that we would have bilingual and bicultural staff. I can tell you one case: We had Emanuel, who was our refugee coordinator. He spoke six different languages. He self-identifies as a refugee, he's from Burundi, so he's Burundian. He speaks Swahili, he speaks French, he speaks a little bit of Spanish, and it's because of his own experience. He's been part of the refugee program here for three years, and he's lived in a couple of refugee camps. We've trained him to really take a leadership role, so he's in charge of at least six other refugee outreach specialists that are working specifically with those communities. And we have refugees, and we have immigrants, and traditionally, for instance, the Vietnamese community in Denver self-identifies as immigrants rather than refugees because the refugee status expires. So we have one full-time person who works day in, day out, with all of the schools and the community in really trying to improve parental engagement, in really trying to improve the language support services that schools were able to receive, empower parents to serve in advisory committees. It challenged the system, because as soon as you have parental engagement, the system needs to react. If the system is not prepared to engage a Vietnamese-dominant parent, and if the system is not able to ensure that parent has a successful experience and is really able to participate, then that's where you're going to get into the challenges. Because we're frustrating that parent, and we've probably lost that parent. They probably won't want to do it again, if we're out trying to encourage them but once they get to an advisory task force no one's there to help them communicate and engage with the other folks that aren't Vietnamese-dominant. So it does take people; it takes professionals; it takes hiring communicators, not just hiring interpreters. In the short term, you can do interpretation and translation, but the long-term strategy needs to be getting into a place where you're able to recruit and retain that talent that can engage, communicate, run schools, teach, and all that good stuff.

AC: Cultural acclimation seems to be the key, but that has an obvious impact near the size and the structure of the department. You're obviously nowhere near the completed department, you're still in transition, and you've had some churn and employee turnover. What's the current plan for the structure of Public Relations & Multicultural Outreach, and what is this department going to look like?

AS: In short, we have two sides to the department. We have the public relations side, which is your traditional public relations role. When all the positions are filled, you should have a shop that should be able to do better and improve on the frequency and quality of messages that are sent to, for example, employees. Although we've had people to communicate with employees, your weekly publication or the daily here in town should not be the employee newsletter. People should not reply on external publications as the single source of official AISD information. Sometimes, in school districts around the country, that is the case – we do take the daily or the weekly or the monthly as the unofficial official publication.

AC: That's what happened with the reduction in force, and there was real confusion over how that information was to be disseminated.

AS: One of the things you should expect from the new structure is that internal communications, which is employee communications, there should be more frequent and more quality communication directly to our employees. For example, electronic e-newsletters that are coming out frequently. Our employees are getting information more frequently from the leadership, including the board and the administration, on initiatives and priorities and the vision for the district. At the same time, forums. It's a large organization, with almost 12,000 employees, and we need to do better at building in systems where we can share information. That hasn't been a priority. In this new structure, we have a coordinator whose sole duty is to improve the quality and frequency of communications to employees. You should also expect the same thing for external audiences, and so we will be directly communicating with, for example, leaders from the community and nonprofits and partners who are working with us, day in, day out. You should expect families will also have new outlets where they can get new information directly from the administration, instead of always relying on other external publications for information. You should expect that, for example, reporters who are engaging us every single day, we will do a better job at meeting deadlines and providing a forum where we are more transparent, where we are more timely, where we are more proactive in building relationships with reporters. You can be sure that the superintendent will get better support in terms of making sure that she's reaching the right audiences at the right time; so that we are proactive and we are getting to family groups, parent groups, nonprofits, other decision makers; and that we are helping the administration reaching these publics. We do that already, but we are going to be more strategic and more proactive.

On the other side is really what gets me more excited, which is the community engagement, with a very specific focus on building linguistically and culturally effective strategies. So the community engagement and multicultural outreach side is going to be one side of the shop that is going to do better at meeting parents in the community. You should expect that the multicultural outreach team and the community engagement team will start supporting the school district in engaging communities around budget, around the Facility Master Plan, around the big picture initiatives. We will be going to churches, we will be going to grocery stores, we will be developing partnerships with both formal and informal groups, we will be engaging refugee agencies, we will be engaging nonprofits that are working with both immigrants and migrants, we will be working with the Mexican Council and engaging families where they're at, in a language that they know and being culturally sensitive and effective, and the communication will be targeted for those audiences. So I think that's something you should expect from our department, even this year as we're building this team. Moving forward, I think it's big-picture conversations and long-term strategies, so we are a lot more intentional, and we are engaged, and our communication is more frequent, and it's linguistically and culturally effective. I think that's the key. You should expect the cultural engagements to have more support for translation and interpretation. We have roughly 29 percent English-language learners, and it's not just Spanish. A large percentage of them are, but we don't have interpreters for Vietnamese or Korean or Arabic or Somali, but those are languages that we have in our student body, so how are we communicating with those families? We have to improve, we have to be able to build in systems that allow us to communicate with those families and those kids, and that's what you should see from the community engagement side.

AC: One of the front lines for that was the parental support specialists, and a lot of them went in the reduction in force. We're already hearing what an impact their loss has had. It sounds like multicultural outreach will take over a lot of what they did, but how will you fill that gap in the day-to-day contact?

AS: I think it's a partnership. I can tell you that the model I came from, which is the Denver model, that's precisely what we did. We had parent support specialists that were working at the campus level. In the Denver model, how it would work is that the parent specialists would work with parents once they are inside the building, and then the communications and community relations side would help drive the interest and participation so that the parent support specialist would do a better job with more families. What we do know, and what I have seen personally, not just in Austin but in Denver and other communities, that [with]parent support specialists, it's to the extent that the parent is in the building and they want to participate and engage in the community or they have a question. Oftentimes the challenge is getting families comfortable even approaching the parent support specialists with their questions or wanting to take part in the parental engagement opportunity. So what has been a good partnership with the Denver model is that communications and community engagement goes out to those parents, does forums, goes out to community events, uses radio and TV to basically start campaigns that increase and encourage parental engagement, and then sets up that opportunity so the parent is comfortable going to the teacher or the principal or the parent support specialist. That's the entryway, and once they're in the building, once they're asking the questions, then they have the parent support specialist to actually work with them, and that has been successful, and that's going to be the same approach here.

AC: But with fewer parent support specialists, the risk you run there is that you get people engaged in the big picture level, but then that structure is not there at the campus level.

AS: We have around 56 support specialists now, but Denver has 12. I would like to see every school have a peer person, a community engagement person, a parent support specialist, and probably a resource advocate, someone whose whole job is to get businesses and nonprofits to help all those kids with all their needs outside of what they need to learn. Housing, shelter, food, social emotional needs, all that other stuff. But the reality is that, given Texas' budget challenges and given Austin's budget challenges, that may not be a reality.

AC: It looks like, when the current round of hiring for your shop is done, you're looking at 20 to 25 positions. How will you be paying for that?

AS: There's local dollars, but what we've been able to do is leverage [federal] Title I dollars. Eight positions in my shop will be paid in a hybrid model where there's local dollars and Title I dollars. Community engagement and communications specifically for the audiences at Title I schools should always have been funded from those sources, and we've never really looked at these models. I can tell you in Denver and many other school districts, that's been the approach because we knew we haven't been able to support that kind of work. So we'll be adding Title I funding to the funding matrix; we are leveraging private partnerships. I can tell you we are engaged with a couple of foundations, one from San Antonio, that will be looking at helping us hire a multicultural outreach coordinator to help us execute an immigrant integration program. On our multicultural strategy, there's a lot of components of training for parents, so we are engaging foundations to help us pay for this stuff. For the extent that we are required to be able to promote a lot of work as relates to the bond – the milestones, the successes, why couldn't bond dollars pay for that – so in the proposal there's a lot of those components, and it's not just local dollars. We're not going to increase from the last shop, but we are being more creative with some of our funding services.

AC: But just on the size issue, it's going to be around 20 to 25 people. Comparing that to the city, which is a comparable size and has comparable responsibility, they have a central communications shop and a dedicated PR person for every entity.

AS: Have you looked at Dallas ISD? They have about 72 people. You can look at Houston, for example, the largest of the ISDs. You can look at Dallas, and you can see it's still a fairly small shop. What cities do is that they embed public affairs people. But if you were to take all of those functions and put them all in one, you will see their structure. But because they embed them into these agencies, it's not reflected in the Mayor's Office. They're going to have a communications shop, but all they're going to do is communication for the mayor. We're trying to support all the schools, all departments, but at the same time we're supporting the superintendent's office. Compared to Dallas, we're still a little shy, both in terms of people and in terms of money they spend. Operating budget? Five million dollars, and that's to do publications. How many marketing people do you think they have in Dallas, just to roll out publications? Thirty-six. How many marketing people do I have? Zero, and I'm not even proposing a marketing position. I'm basically trying to say, the public relations coordinator will do a hybrid of both and help us with our publications needs. This year, I don't propose to do a lot of publications. Why? Because we're not in an environment where we can spend money on releasing fancy publications. We can't spend $16,000 on a publication that perhaps, perhaps only the board of trustees and a few community members will see. If it's going to be parent-friendly publications, let's talk about it. Let's be cost-effective, but also let's be intentional. Let the content be parent-friendly, but let's discuss the reads. In Denver, for example, we started our own little newsletter. It's a newspaper, and we printed that in three, four languages, and it was custom made for those audiences. So I'd hire writers in each of those specific languages, and the content varied depending on the audience. We were able to release that as a tabloid-style, newsprint kind of stock, and it was relatively inexpensive. We used the same printers that probably the local daily used. It was a fraction of the cost of some of these fancy glosses, but it was more effective, and probably the quality of the message was what really mattered to me as a communicator. Our families were really able to use it. We don't have to spend $16,000 on a glossy that maybe has an audience of 300 people.

AC: You have this concept for a much bigger, arguably more cohesive concept for a department. Knowing that you don't have a big budget, with a lot of land mines and changing demographics, plus the technology gap, what are you looking at for the next year, for the toolset to reach out to communities that have not been engaged before?

AS: Just as there is a student achievement gap, there is a communications gap, there is an engagement gap. Precisely because demographics are shifting and changing, the strategy and the tactics must also shift and change as demographics shift and change. So what you will see this year is that we will use, for example, radio as a way to reach Spanish-dominant families. Why? Because we know that Spanish-dominant adults listen to the radio on average seven hours a day. Whereas you and I might tune in going to and from work, drive time, the average Spanish-dominant adult listens throughout the day. Arbitron, Nielsen ratings, all show the same. ...

So what did we do in Denver? We knew that fact, we went to our families and did focus groups, and then we went and partnered with the local commercial radio stations and said, "If education is important to you, and we know that as a for-profit business you want to improve education, well obviously we are the biggest partner in that." We came together and created a radio show on the Top 3 commercial radio stations in the city, regardless of genre, regardless of language, because there's more people listening to Spanish-language radio than English-language radio. Austin's slightly different. Spanish radio is number seven, not number one like in Denver, but nonetheless it's still pretty high, and our intent is to do this here in Austin as well. If our intent is to increase the number of messages about school, about school reform, about the urgency of being an engaged parent and the how to, like best practices or ideas and tip, if we need to do that, then we can do that easily through radio. So I've engaged with and will continue to engage with a lot of the players here in Austin to really see who we can partner with, both in terms of the radio station and who can come forth and help us subsidize the cost of a campaign. We did that in Denver, other communities are doing it, so we know we can do that in Austin. Cost effective is important, but as a communicator what's more important to me is that the audience gets the message. I recognize that we are building systems to communicate directly with an audience via the Internet. It might work for certain audiences, and we're going to do a better job at reaching those audiences, quality messages, more frequency. However, there's also the digital divide, and we've recognized that the way that we get to those audiences is maybe not through the Internet, but maybe it's face to face, maybe it's at community meetings, maybe it's by working with nonprofits who are already working with those communities, maybe it's through print publications that are parent-friendly and relatively easy to produce and then distribute. We know that the backpacks of kids are the best dissemination channels, and we know that communicators would love to be in our backpacks. I know that businesses would love to be in our backpacks too. But at the end of the day, we have a great distribution model, and that's backpacks. So if we can develop a publication that's custom-made for the audience and that's parent-friendly and has good quality information that we know parents want to know, we could use the backpacks to get to households at relatively low costs.

AC: We all know the cycle of hiring in the school year. You're advertising seven positions, including several high-dollar posts. If you guys lowball, wagewise, it's around $335,000 in salaries excluding translators. If you go high, we're close to half a million. So we're almost in November and you're still advertising senior positions in the shop. Why haven't they been filled?

AS: I've either placed or hired at least seven people since I've been here. My job was to come in and really strategically think about the structure of the organization. It took us a month to come back to the administration with my recommendations in terms [of] the right structure. Seeing what we had, seeing the gaps based on the charge that I have, and the charge I have is to communicate and reach our publics, specifically parents and families. How you do that is all the tactics, so media is one way of getting to them, direct engagement and other tactics. So I made my recommendations to the administration in terms of the right structure, and we're in year one of that. I've been here three months now, and it's taken us hiring the first level of vacancies that we had coming into the organization, then doing the assessment in terms of what are the gaps in terms of structure, and so now we're in that phase, where I've made my recommendations and they've been approved. Most of these positions are brand new, like they've been posted literally in the last week and a half. In fact, two positions of translators are being proposed to be posted over the weekend or even today.

AC: But there are two assistant directorships that have only just been posted in the last week.

AS: In order to execute my charge for the first year, those are my recommendations. So we've been able to restructure the shop; we've been able to re-evaluate the vacancies, change those vacancies to fit the new structure; and we've been able to be very creative to re-evaluate the funding streams. I think that, at the end of the day, it's cost-neutral from last year. We're very clear, we're did not add more cost to the department, but we are taking on a lot more charges. We didn't have community engagement, we didn't have multicultural outreach, for example, in the former department.

AC: But is that just local funds that stay the same? Are the Title I funds on top of that?

AS: No, total costs, with Title I and local funding. I'm not including the bond, because I don't manage bonds. That's handled by facilities, but to the extent they'll be hiring people to help them communicate, so for example they'll be hiring PR companies. Then the question always becomes, do you hire a PR company and pay three times as much, or do you hire someone to help you with all the things you need to do?

AC: External PR firms aren't always a great investment, either in cost-effectiveness or accountability. Where do you see them fitting into your plans?

AS: My two cents on consultants. There's a place and a time for an agency to come in and help you with strategy or to help with short-term projects. In my business, I typically look at them not necessarily as consultants but independent contractors. So I look at freelance writers, for example. That's one area where I might be looking at how do I get a freelance writer to meet the needs of a community. If we have an interest in a community newspaper, and sometimes it might take us to actually get some quality stories to match the outlet, and sometimes I might hire a freelancer to help me make that right for the publications that I talked about. How are we going to meet the needs of all our publics, particularly those publics that speak Arabic? Because if we're going to have a publication that's in Arabic, I may not be able to afford an employee just for that publication that comes out three times a year. So I may hire a freelance writer just to help me for that short-term project. It's three times a year, you get into a contract, and that's cost effective for me. But anything that's costing me more than a full-time employee, I have to say, "Gosh, could I get that plus more if we were to invest those dollars internally to increase our own capacity?"

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