Construyendo puentes

Communicating with Spanish-speaking parents is a challenge in Memphis. Meet the former teacher who’s taking it on.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Talia Palacio directs student volunteers at a Hispanic Heritage Month event in October. Palacio is the newly hired specialist handling communication between Shelby County Schools and Memphis' growing Hispanic community.

Growing up in Memphis, Talia Palacio started building bridges across cultures at an early age.

At the urging of her Spanish professor mother, she spoke Spanish at home and learned English at school. In school, Palacio shared Panamanian food and traditions with her classmates.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Palacio, right, coordinates activities during a Hispanic Heritage Month event for Shelby County Schools.

She went on to become a teacher in Memphis and Nashville, eventually returning to Shelby County Schools as director of the state’s only bilingual program at Treadwell Elementary, which is more than a third Hispanic.

Now Palacio is the point person for the district’s efforts to connect with Hispanic parents, many of whom speak little English. The investment has been a long time coming for a city with a growing Hispanic population and for a school system that has struggled to meet their needs. Last year, the U.S. Department of Education launched an investigation into allegations that Shelby County Schools has been turning away newly arrived students.

Palacio took her new job in July amid a national struggle over immigration, where differing visions for undocumented residents range from building a wall to providing a pathway to citizenship. She appreciates how Tennessee’s largest school district is seeking to welcome Hispanic families.

“I can see how we’ve become more conscientious when addressing matters pertaining to our multilingual families,” Palacio said. “We want all of our families, students and teachers and staff to feel supported, all while being more culturally aware.”

Natalia Powers

With her background, Palacio was natural choice to become the district’s new bilingual communications analyst, said Natalia Powers, a Latina herself who joined Shelby County Schools last year as its director of communications. Powers has been a key player in engaging more thoughtfully with Hispanic families.

“The community already knew her. It was kind of a no-brainer,” Powers said of hiring Palacio. “Anything we’re doing has a Spanish outlet or arm.”

Palacio’s main role is to support principals and school-based staff in how they communicate with Hispanic families. She spearheaded a survey during registration last summer to learn how those parents prefer to receive district communication. The result was a new Twitter account and a news website in Spanish, and she’s working on a regular show for Shelby County Schools’ radio station.

She also planned this month’s Hispanic Heritage Month celebration at Hickory Ridge Middle School. Hundreds of families turned out to meet community organizations and experience cultural dances and food. And during a recent parent session on optional schools, Palacio led an impromptu mini-session in another room for the Spanish-speaking parents.

The Memphis district has more than 13,000 students who speak primarily Spanish at home, or about 12 percent of the student population.

The key to reaching these families, especially newcomer families, is to be out in the community, rather than waiting for questions, Powers said.

“They just don’t know,” she said. “Not that they don’t want to hear about opportunities. They are learning how this country operates.”


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Palacio has been working with principals at schools with a higher-than-average population of Hispanic students. Those include Jackson Elementary, Ridgeway High, Peabody Elementary, Craigmont Middle and Craigmont High.

Principals are up for the challenge, she said, but need better tools and direction. “They take ownership. They’re invested and they want parents to hear their voices,” Palacio said.

Her availability has been a godsend to principals like Cedric Smith of Hickory Ridge Middle, where almost a fifth of the student population is Hispanic. Previously, he would call random Spanish-speaking district employees for help in translating parent materials or pointing parents to community resources. Now, he has a dedicated specialist to call on, which means he spends less time chasing information that’s vital for his school’s parents.

“Everything we do is in English and Spanish,” said Smith, whose school also offers four adult classes for English as a Second Language. “Having a contact person, especially when you have a large Hispanic population to know the resources parents can receive … I think it’ll make a huge difference.”

Though the number of bilingual employees has increased in Shelby County Schools, the hiring of Palacio is different because she represents a district-wide commitment.

“When it comes to Hispanic outreach, I feel like schools are working in silos,” said Yesenia Ubaldo, a teacher and family and school support specialist for eight years.

Now, the district is “more proactive,” she said. “To be able to have access to someone who will have direct contact is wonderful.”

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Students dance with their mothers at a Hispanic Heritage Month celebration in October.

Ubaldo notes a shift in Memphis’ Hispanic population in recent decades. A lot of immigrant men used to arrive alone; now there are more families. And compared to other parts of the country with significant Hispanic populations, Memphis has more first-generation families who do not speak English, said Luis Anaya, national sales manager of Radio Ambiente, a local Spanish station.

Palacio coordinates ads on the station to reach such parents, and she plans to make more school announcements on the airwaves too, all to help families navigate the array of tasks involved in having a child in the Shelby County Schools.

“They need to be vaccinated, they need to fill out forms, they need to bring their address, all those little things,” Anaya said. “We need to inform them and we are being helpful addressing through our broadcast. Because in the past, I’ve seen Shelby County having trouble to get that information to the Hispanic community.”

Anaya recently helped promote the district’s Newcomer International Center for high school students who are newly arriving from mostly Spanish-speaking countries. The station hosted a live DJ event at Wooddale High School and invited parents to learn more about the new program.

The center has 26 students so far but needs to connect to more parents to reach its capacity of 100. It’s one of the reasons that Palacio was hired in the first place.

“The families are learning and buying in,” Palacio said. “It makes a difference to see we’re here in the community.”

Youth suicide

Younger Colorado students seek access to mental health care, without parental permission

PHOTO: Sandra Fish / Chalkbeat
Democratic Reps. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, in the foreground, right, and Dylan Roberts, left, present a bill aimed at curbing Colorado youth suicide to the House Public Health Care and Human Services Committee on Feb. 20, 2019.

A bill before the Colorado legislature would allow younger children to access confidential therapy on their own to fight mental illness and youth suicide.

A stream of Colorado teens on Wednesday told stories of their mental health crises, suicide attempts, and the deaths of friends as the House Public Health Care and Human Services Committee discussed House Bill 1120.

This is the third attempt by state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet to expand access to therapy for middle school-aged children. Previous efforts died in the Republican-controlled Senate. Now Democrats control both chambers, but that doesn’t mean there is consensus on the best way to intervene in what has become a public health crisis in Colorado.

Some questioned the wisdom of allowing 12- to 14-year-olds to seek help from licensed mental health or social workers without parental approval. Current law allows people 15 and over to seek therapy without such consent.

Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City  Democrat, said she’s considering adopting portions of a New York law that allows minors to get therapy without parental consent under certain circumstances. Already, she’s agreed to amend the bill to allow health providers to consult with a child’s parents if they think it’s warranted and wouldn’t harm the child.

She said she expects the committee to vote on the bill March 1, with additional amendments.

The bill also would have the Colorado Department of Education develop mental health and suicide prevention resources for schools around the state.

State Rep. Dylan Roberts, a Steamboat Springs Democrat who is a co-sponsor of the bill, noted that his district has been particularly hard hit by Colorado’s youth suicide crisis.

“Eagle County had 18 completed suicides last year in a community of only about 50,000 people,” Roberts said.

Suicide was the second leading cause of death in 2017 for those ages 10 to 21 in Colorado. Accidents ranked first, with 156 deaths; while 138 youths died by suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That number is up from 72 suicides for the age group in 2008.

“We are in the top in the nation, No. 3, for youth suicide,” Michaelson Jenet said. “What are we going to do about it?”

Susan Marine, who lost two children to suicide, said the Suicide Prevention Coalition of Colorado agrees that youth suicide is a pressing issue that deserves action. But she suggested mental health workers should reach out to parents after a handful of confidential sessions with a child.

“All of our providers believe that it’s important to involve parents as soon as possible,” Marine said. “The parents may be totally unaware of their child’s struggle.”

Brad Miller, with the conservative group Colorado Family Action, went further, suggesting that allowing confidential counseling violates parents’ constitutional rights.

“Kids have limited cognitive ability to make these decisions,” he said.

His group, along with Colorado Christian University and Christian Home Educators of Colorado, opposes HB 1120.

But several young people said not all parents are supportive of their children.

Amy Rodriguez, now 16 and living in Thornton, said she came out to her mom at age 12. Her mother wasn’t supportive, and she couldn’t get counseling without permission until age 15.

“Your life’s more important than a relationship with your parents,” she said.

Riah Hollis, of Denver, talked of her brother’s struggles with gender identity and his suicide attempt. He didn’t want to talk to his parents because they didn’t support his gender transition.

“Sometimes kids don’t have a trusted adult at home. Sometimes a crisis involves parents,” she said.

Becky Zal-Sanchez, a social worker in Denver-area schools, said she’s often frustrated with the inability to provide services to young people without parental consent. “I reach out to parents over and over again, and nobody calls me back.”

Representatives from Mental Health Colorado, the National Association of Social Workers Colorado chapter, and Colorado Rural Health Center are among the supporters of the measure.

Michaelson Jenet is motivated in part by her own son’s mental health struggles. She noted that her son’s counselors reviewed his sessions with his parents, which set him back. “My son stopped trusting mental health providers, so he stopped telling them what was wrong.”

HB 1120 is among several bills aimed at dealing with mental, social, and health issues among young people. Michaelson Jenet is also sponsoring a measure to place social workers in 10 elementary schools around the state, a bill that prohibits conversion therapy for LGBTQ minors, and a bill to further subsidize school lunches for high school students.

Unmet needs

A social worker in every grade? Perhaps for 10 Colorado elementary schools

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Fifth-graders practice mindfulness at Munroe Elementary School in Denver.

Educators, parents, and social workers told of students struggling with depression, younger and younger children attempting suicide, and youths ending up in prison. A bill approved Thursday by a Colorado House committee would pay for a three-year trial to provide social and emotional help for elementary students in the hopes of addressing some of these challenges.

If approved by the full legislature and signed into law, the measure would create a three-year pilot program at 10 high-needs schools. It is estimated to cost about $5 million a year. House Bill 1017 would place social workers, counselors or psychologists in every elementary grade at the test schools starting next year.

In an impassioned presentation, bill sponsor state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, said schools need more social workers “to stop our children from dying by suicide, from ending up incarcerated, from being failed by our system.”

Suicide is a leading cause of death among youth ages 10 to 24 in Colorado, and advocates of the bill said schools are often ill-equipped to deal with children suffering from trauma, bullying and behavioral challenges.

The bill was scaled back from an original version that would have cost $16 million a year. Michaelson Jenet said the nearly $5 million annual cost would be funded in part by $2.5 million from the state’s marijuana cash fund, with the rest from private foundations.

The National Association of Social Workers recommends one social worker for every 250 students, and one for every 50 students at high-needs schools.

Colorado schools don’t come close to those numbers.

About one-third of the state’s 178 school districts employed social workers during the 2016-17 school year, the most recent for which data was available from the Colorado Department of Education. Those districts represented about 89 percent of that year’s 905,000 pre-K through 12th grade students.

The nearly 590 social workers employed worked out to less than one full-time employee per 1,000 students.

Englewood’s Sheridan School District had three social workers for 1,511 students, while Yuma County had 1½ social workers for 807 students.

The two largest districts, Denver and Jefferson County, employed more than one-third of school social workers that year, with more than one social worker for every 1,000 students. Denver voters approved a 2016 tax to help pay for more social workers.

But many districts have no social workers. And most school social workers are stretched thin.

Jessie Caggiano is a social worker who serves more than 3,000 students at four high schools in Weld County.

“I’m not able to meet with students effectively on a one-on-one basis, because I’m trying to implement other services schoolwide,” she said. “I’m only at each of my schools one day a week, so I’m not able to meet their needs by any means.”

Darlene Sampson, president of the Colorado chapter of the Association of Black Social Workers, recalled working at a Denver school when a student was killed in the cafeteria.

“Many kids are carrying their trauma in their backpacks into the school,” Sampson said.

And Cam Short-Camilli, representing the Colorado School Social Work Association, said students are facing increased emotional problems at most schools. The increase in youth suicide and suicide attempts is especially difficult, she said. One Denver incident last fall attracted national attention.

“Every school district, every student is impacted, that’s rural, urban, suburban schools,” Short-Camilli said. “In the past five years, I’ve been at elementary schools, and it’s been extremely shocking. Kids at those schools, there’s an immense ripple effect.”

But state Rep. James Wilson, a Salida Republican, questioned whether the pilot program would be possible to replicate because of the high number of professionals needed.

“I’m sitting here feeling like the Grinch,” Wilson said. “I cannot bring myself to put together an unrealistic pilot. Will it really work in the real world?”

State Rep. Janet Buckner, an Aurora Democrat, also expressed concerns, but voted for the bill.

“I’m concerned how we’re going to fund it,” she sad. “The suicide rate is off the chart and our kids need so much help. I don’t think we can wait. I have a lot of phone calls and emails about this bill, people who really need the help.”

HB-1017 next goes to the Appropriations Committee before being considered by the full House, then the Senate. It is one of several measures aimed at offering help for students and their families beyond academics at public schools.