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Herriman Journal

Tiny device brings huge improvement for refugee students

Feb 03, 2023 08:00AM ● By Jet Burnham

Non-English speaking students wear these translation earbuds to access classroom instruction in real-time alongside their peers. (Photo courtesy of Julie Scherzinger)

High tech translation earbuds will soon be a normal part of classroom instruction at Herriman High School for some of the 200 students who are identified as English language learners, many of whom are refugees and immigrants.

Many of these students come to Utah and are immediately enrolled in high school classes in which they don’t understand their teachers but are too overwhelmed to ask for help.

“They don’t have the courage to say, ‘I don’t understand this,’” Luis Pulido said, a Herriman High sophomore from Venezuela.

The earbuds work with a phone app which can translate speech into multiple languages and dialects at the same time so both teachers and students understand each other.

Herriman High School Assistant Principal Julie Scherzinger said this device will prevent misunderstandings.

“It’s allowing for instruction to occur, because students can get all the instruction in their language and ask questions in their language, and it comes back to me in English and then I can answer them in English and they get the answer in Spanish,” she said. 

Pulido, who has lived in the United States for just over a year, has used the earbuds and said they are a helpful tool.

“The teachers understand you if you don't have the words in your mind at that moment, and you understand the teachers,” he said.

Pulido said he, like many students who are just learning English, has been intimidated to take upper-level honors and AP classes. He said this tool will enable everyone to reach their full potential, allowing them to take classes that have not been accessible before because of language barriers.

“Those classes have technical language that I don’t understand right now, but I will. The earbuds will help me with that,” Pulido said.

Scherzinger said it is common for students who have excellent transcripts from their home country and are very smart to remain in general classes because of their language skills.

“Even with the scaffolding that we have in place and the accommodations we have in place, it is an uphill battle,” she said. The earbuds will allow students to continue progressing in their education despite the linguistic challenges.

Scherzinger said when students struggle with language, it affects their ability to learn, which can then affect their mental health and whether or not they choose to stay in school and graduate. 

She said the earbuds are an effective solution to many problems these students face.

“It removes barriers, is what it does,” Scherzinger said. “It removes barriers so that equalizes the playing field for our immigrant students and multilingual students.”

Herriman High staff members are always looking for ways to help students. Principal Todd Quarnberg said costs have always been a prohibitive factor for these types of devices, but that once they saw these earbud translators in action, they decided to make it a priority to find a way to purchase them.

They applied for funding from Live Daybreak’s school grant program. A large portion of students attending Herriman High live in the Daybreak community. Students and staff demonstrated the earbuds at a Live Daybreak board meeting and were awarded $17,500, which will purchase about 58 devices.

“It was a very compelling project,” Jenny Nigbor of Live Daybreak said. “We don't normally fund to that amount, but they had a real need and our board was more than excited to be able to support them in that way.”

The first devices purchased will go to students who most need them and to front office workers and counselors “to change the dynamic of being able to speak to the public,” Scherzinger said.

Five years ago, the only office staff member that spoke Spanish was the school resource officer, Scherzinger said. Now the school administration prioritizes hiring bilingual and culturally competent employees.

“Every new hire we've required to either be ESL-endorsed or willing to go back and pick it up,” Quarnberg said.

The number of support staff and new positions at Herriman High continues to expand to meet the needs of refugee students and their families. These include bilingual homeless liaisons, study skills teachers and aides and counseling center staff, some of whom are English language learners or first generation immigrants themselves.

Students who are new to the country take an English Language Development class. Last year, there was just one class; this year there are five. They also participate in the Latinos in Action classes. Last year, English language learners participated in a Be the Change program to break down social barriers. At the beginning of this school year, a Hall of Flags with 32 flags representing each of the home countries of students was created. 

Pulido said he feels the support of teachers, administrators and school staff members.

“The school has done good with it,” Pulido said.

The support of students extends to their families. With community donations and funds from the Jordan Education Fund, the school provides beds, blankets, food, clothing and school supplies to refugee students and their families.

“When that parent walks in the door with a heavy load, the goal is that we can really help where we can, lift where we can,” Scherzinger said.

The number of minority students attending Herriman High has jumped from 5% in 2018 to 28% this year, the majority of whom are immigrants. About 60 new refugee students enroll each semester, and with the border opening again, Scherzinger expects that growth to continue.

Quarnberg said it takes a lot of school funding just to make the system work and that breaking down each barrier costs money.  He and his staff are committed to break down barriers, address shortfalls and create new positions to help their students access a quality education.

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