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Translation App Engages Families in Student Learning

December 1, 2021

Regular communication between teachers and families is vital to student success, but even during ideal circumstances, it has its challenges. Throw in a pandemic, periods of hybrid and online learning, and multiple languages spoken by families within the district, and the challenges of effective communication are compounded.

But a new translation platform used by Northfield Public Schools is helping remove obstacles to family engagement. Through TalkingPoints, teachers and staff can send text messages in English, and have those messages translated into a family’s home language, using artificial intelligence and human translators. Parents can respond in their language of choice, and the return messages are translated into English.

“It’s an incredible equalizer,” said Carrie Duba, one of the district’s PreK-12 systems and instructional coaches.

With the support of Superintendent Matt Hillmann and Director of Instructional Services Hope Langston, Duba launched a pilot of the two-way communication program last spring with elementary, middle school and high school students enrolled in Portage – the district’s online-only learning program – and with all the students in the elementary buildings. The pilot continued through July 31 with students in Targeted Services, and on Aug. 31, the program was launched districtwide for all students in early childhood through grade 12.

The app is free for parents, caregivers, and teachers to use; they just have to download it onto their phones or other devices. The school district pays for the service based on the number of students enrolled.

Hillmann said the district is always looking at ways it can better communicate with families, as communication styles change. Although phone calls and face-to-face meetings remain important, TalkingPoints helps staff reach families who might not otherwise be reached.

“As we continue to see the school district become more diverse, we know that home language is critical, and we want to make sure we have the opportunity to communicate with people in the language that’s most comfortable for them,” he said.

English is the primary home language for 92 percent of the district’s families; seven percent speak Spanish, and one percent speak other languages (Somali, Vietnamese, Swahili, French, Swedish, and Chinese).

Since the pilot program’s launch, fewer than 15 families have unsubscribed from the opt-out program. Duba said the numbers show it’s been used widely and often. Between the start of school and the end of October, more than 32,000 messages were sent between teachers and families. Roughly 200 messages go back and forth every day, with about the same number coming in from families and going out from teachers.

“I would cautiously suggest that this means this is the families’ preferred communication method,” Duba said.

Teachers were trained in the program before school started, and Duba said feedback has been uniformly positive.

Nicole Papke, a reading interventionist at Greenvale Park Elementary School, uses TalkingPoints about once a week to answer parent questions, offer ideas for encouraging more reading at home, and share success stories.

“The ability for messages sent home to be translated in the family’s home language is one of the best features,” she said. “I also appreciate multiple caregivers being given the opportunity to see the same message at the same time. This has helped tremendously with communication in families where one or more caregivers may live outside of the child’s home.”

TalkingPoints is a California-based nonprofit, and its platform is used by school districts across the country. So far, Northfield is the only district in Minnesota using the technology, although officials in Faribault are looking into using it at Faribault Middle School.

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