The Minneapolis school board meeting room has a new feature because of the pandemic, though it has nothing to do with the virus.
A row of three sound booths offers a space for Somali, Spanish and Hmong speakers to interpret the meeting in real time. People in the room can use a receiver to listen along with the interpretation, or families can tune in from home to watch the livestreamed meeting in their language.
Interpretation and translation services were offered in person at meetings before the pandemic, but the forced temporary shift to the virtual format in 2020 pushed the district — and many others across Minnesota and the nation — to lean more heavily on technology to reach families at home, both in English and their native languages.
In Minneapolis, that meant recording the meetings with interpretation and making those videos available online. The district also now takes public comment via voice mail, which can also be interpreted, and recently launched a texting tool that can translate messages between educators and parents into more than 100 languages — moves that leaders say have improved accessibility, transparency and engagement.
"It's important that what we do in English we do in the languages that our families are speaking," said Ryan Strack, the administrator of board and government relations for the district. "A school board meeting can already be inaccessible enough, but if we have the ability to improve that, we should always do that."
According to the district, more than 7,700 students have self-identified as speaking Somali, Spanish or Hmong at home.
Minneapolis Public Schools contracts with Minneapolis-based INGCO International to provide interpreters for the district, including at board meetings and parent-teacher conferences. This year's $329,000 contract includes $80,000 for interpretation at board meetings.
The company's president and founder, Ingrid Christensen, said it had long been using technology to virtually offer interpretation services in the corporate world, but schools had been slower to take advantage of the same tools.
"When the pandemic hit, schools were so hungry for those best practices on how to use technology … and how to get a school board meeting into people's living rooms," she said. "It pushed all of us to think about how we could highlight this work for our schools."
In Minneapolis, that meant adding three more livestreaming channels to broadcast the meetings in Spanish, Somali and Hmong. At the start of the pandemic, the operation was spread out in conference rooms full of wires and cords and audio equipment for the interpreters, who watched the English stream while speaking into microphones to create the audio for the other channels.
Now they're able to sit in the new sound booths in the same room as the meeting and be available if anyone wanting to speak to the board needs an interpreter.
"It's a little complicated but it works," said Christensen, whose company now works with 50 school districts, including most metro-area schools, to offer some level of translation and interpretation for meetings and conferences.
At Tuesday's board meeting, Yvette Baudelaire and Dory Montenegro — both Spanish interpreters working with INGCO — shared the responsibility of interpreting the meeting and a few public comments.
"When people know the school is delivering a message in a language they know and understand, that ultimately works in benefit of the children because parents feel respected and engaged," Baudelaire said. In the first weeks of the pandemic, live interpretation allowed Spanish-speaking families, for example, to immediately understand what was happening with distance learning, or where they could pick up a meal for their child.
"As soon as people know they can hear their own language, they can get involved," she said. "It's about making sure everyone has a chance to listen and be listened to."
Minneapolis also has three full-time, in-house translators who translate the district's documents and another contracted interpretation group offers services through three-way calls, allowing teachers and families to talk in real time.
Minneapolis teachers can also use TalkingPoints, a texting translation app, to communicate with families. Since rolling it out last week, parents and educators have exchanged more than 11,000 translated messages. The district paid $99,000 for the app this year.
Strack said the new offerings have come with an increased level of engagement, but also added logistics to consider to ensure the interpretations, livestreams and voice mail public comments all run smoothly.
With more to plan for, it's harder to have meetings just pop up on the calendar. That's why the board has worked to create a more consistent schedule of meetings on Tuesday nights.
"It's not as easy as just flipping a switch and doing this in a new way," he said. "In some cases, it does create a little inflexibility, but we know just how important it is."
Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440