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Sonoma School District Cuts Bilingual Liaison. Immigrant Families Are Fighting Back

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Sandra Cruz, a parent of a student at Oak Grove Elementary School, poses for a portrait in Santa Rosa on Tuesday, May 14, 2024. Oak Grove Union School District voted to lay off its only bilingual translator by the end of the school year, and many Latino parents have mobilized to demand that the school revert its decision. A third of the students at Oak Grove Union School District come from Spanish-speaking homes. (Gina Castro/KQED)

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“My only goal in this country is that my children go to college,” Sandra Cruz said.

Cruz first arrived in Santa Rosa in 2006 with her husband and two children. Originally from Puerto Vallarta in Mexico, they had left everything behind to start all over again in the North Bay — where she enrolled her two kids in the Oak Grove Union School District, which serves families in west Santa Rosa and nearby communities.

Despite not speaking English and working as a housecleaner, Cruz wanted to be a part of her children’s education and began volunteering at school events and field trips. “It was like finding a family,” she said, “even though we didn’t speak the language, folks opened doors for us at every school event.”

Out of the roughly 800 students enrolled in Oak Grove’s two school sites, about a third are Latino, and many of them are also learning English as a second language. As her children grew up and moved on to a different district for high school, Cruz kept many of the friendships she made with parents and teachers. When she and her husband had a third child, a girl, she knew she wanted to go back to Oak Grove.

Her youngest is now 9 years old, a third-grader in Oak Grove Elementary. This time around, Cruz said that Spanish-speaking students are even more integrated into the classrooms, thanks to Ana Castillo-Williams, the district’s part-time bilingual liaison. Castillo-Williams makes sure all communication to parents is available in both English and Spanish, translates in parent-teacher meetings and helps organize the district’s multicultural events like the Día de los Niños celebration.


“She’s earned the trust of families as many parents don’t feel comfortable coming to the schools because they don’t know the language,” Cruz said. “But she works with them so they have the courage to show up, and she also makes sure that their voices are heard even when they don’t speak English.”

However, on March 13, the Oak Grove Board of Trustees voted to cut the hours of 10 positions — eliminating the bilingual liaison — as the district seeks to close budget gaps.

Since the district’s announcement, Cruz and dozens of other parents have been leading weekly protests demanding the district revert its decision. They’ve garnered the support of the community at large, including the teachers’ union and groups like the North Bay Organizing Project.

All over Bay Area school districts, immigrant parents have shown their organizing power — with or without English. In Oakland, Mam-speaking parents mobilized to help out Indigenous families struggling with remote learning during the pandemic. Over in San Francisco, Cantonese-speaking parents led the efforts to pass Proposition N in 2016, allowing noncitizen parents and guardians to vote in school board elections.

At Oak Grove, families argue that without the bilingual liaison position, the gap between Latino students and their peers will continue to grow. And parents said they’re not planning to step back on their demands.

A fight for ‘language justice’

On March 8, Oak Grove trustees were scheduled to have their first meeting since approving the staff layoffs. Even before the meeting began, dozens of parents were already protesting outside the gym of Willowside Middle School, where the board meets.

With signs that read, “Keep our bilingual liaison” and “Language justice,” parents and community members chanted: “¡Amber, escucha, estamos en la lucha!” — “Amber, listen to us, we’re in this fight!” referring to district Superintendent Amber Stringfellow.

Willowside Middle School in Santa Rosa on Tuesday, May 14, 2024. (Gina Castro/KQED)

In a statement, Stringfellow told KQED that the Sonoma County Office of Education has directed the district to cut back on spending to match projected state funding. The Press Democrat first reported in February that Oak Grove is one of three districts in the county facing the most financial stress, with cash reserves running below state requirements. With all the staff cuts announced in March, the district hopes to save $237,242, but officials are still looking for more ways to rein in spending.

“The district understands and is committed to providing avenues of communication for our community, including our parents and guardians who are not fluent in English,” Stringfellow said. She added that the district provides stipends to other bilingual staff who pitch in with translation services.

However, for some teachers, getting other district employees to fill the shoes of the bilingual liaison isn’t a solution.

“We have 13 people getting a stipend for bilingualism,” said sixth-grade teacher Cari Cardle, who is also the co-president of the Oak Grove Union Elementary Educators Association. “But you know what? Those 13 people have a job. And it’s not to be the bilingual liaison. It’s not to be an interpreter.”

Cardle has taught at Oak Grove for 25 years. Whatever the topic is, she can teach it, she said — but adds that over time, what teachers are responsible for has grown considerably. “The mental health, physical health, the social media aspect, all of those things combined have changed this job so dramatically,” she said, “and that’s the part that’s hard.”

But all of this goes into forming relationships with students and their families, she said. This is especially important for students learning English as a second language, who have to learn material twice as fast to catch up with their peers.

“The only thing that matters in a school system for student success is relationships,” Cardle said. “If you don’t have a relationship, you’re not going to get the best out of the kid.”

That’s where Castillo-Williams would play a key role as bilingual liaison, she explains. When something was going on at home, Spanish-speaking parents would call the bilingual liaison — not teachers or school administrators. Parents told KQED that Castillo-Williams felt like the only staff member they could comfortably talk about delicate family issues. (Castillo-Williams herself was not available to talk to KQED for this story.)

“And it’s not just the families that are benefiting. It’s also the teachers who can then help the kids because we have an avenue to find out what’s going on,” Cardle said. In its March meeting, over 90% of the Educators Association voted in favor of supporting parents’ demand to bring back the bilingual liaison.

“How do you reach that kid who doesn’t have what they need?” Cardle said. “If they’re hungry, they can’t learn.”

‘We cannot stay quiet’

School districts up and down California are struggling with widening deficits. San Francisco Unified could see a $100 million budget shortfall next year, and the district projects student enrollment will continue to shrink for the rest of the decade. Over in Los Angeles, LAUSD could see a deficit of roughly $1.75 billion next year.

And despite recent promises from Gov. Gavin Newsom to protect K–12 funding at the state level, federal grants that helped buoy up school districts during the pandemic have essentially run out. “What to cut?” is the top question at many school board meetings.

However, cutting the bilingual liaison could specifically make it harder for Latino students to make up lost learning, parents said.

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According to state testing data, approximately 52% of all students in Oak Grove schools met or exceeded English Language Arts (ELA) standards at the end of the 2022–23 school year. In math, that number was 42%. Among students who identify as Latino or Hispanic, the numbers were lower: 42% in ELA and 28% in math. While research has confirmed that testing results are rarely good indicators of student success, this data can be used to identify student needs.

“We cannot stay quiet while we see the needs of our Hispanic community ignored,” said parent María Gayosso at the district’s March 8 meeting.

And if one group of students is struggling, that could also affect other students, said Rhianna Casesa, associate professor at Sonoma State University. She focuses on bilingual education and works with many young educators who want to teach in Sonoma schools.

“Since 2017, Sonoma County has gone through one trauma after another, with fires, COVID-19, flooding,” she said. “If you don’t know what it’s like from a child’s perspective or from a parent’s perspective, it’s really hard to appropriately teach that child in that classroom.”

And that is why it’s so important for parents to speak up, she adds.

“Something that I’ve seen happening more and more is that parents are demanding what they deserve,” she said. “Parents now feel that they have the agency to make these demands because, ultimately, it’s their tax money.”

In Oak Grove, the school board is considering a process for reinstating positions once next year’s budget is finalized in June.

Sandra Cruz says she and other parents will keep protesting every week until they get the bilingual liaison back.

“I think the most important thing is the seed we plant in our children,” she said. “The courage we show them.”


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