Schools have always turned to nonprofits for help. Thanks to the pandemic, that need has never been greater

COVID-19 has forced nonprofits to offer everything from cultural classes to masks and vaccines

ABOVE PHOTO: 13-year-old Seini Hafoka, left, stands next to her aunt, Uilou Falepapalangi-ahina. Both virtually attend the Tongan language class offered through the Portland-based Immigrant Refugee Community Organization, or IRCO. PMG Photo: Jaime Valdez 

With a baby cradled in her arms, Uilou Falepapalangi-ahina breastfeeds during a video conference call while sitting next to her 13-year-old niece, Seini Hafoka, a student at Ron Russell Middle School, in the David Douglas School District.

Falepapalangi-ahina, 32, says the coronavirus pandemic has impacted the way she socializes with others, but virtual meetings have given her the flexibility to be a mother without missing any gatherings.

Pacific Islander families, like many families, are deep rooted in culture and multigenerational households. That’s why Hafoka and Falepapalangi-ahina never miss the Tongan language class offered through the Portland-based Immigrant Refugee Community Organization, or IRCO. The community-based nonprofit works to empower children, youths, families and elders from around the world to build new lives and to become self-sufficient by offering more than 200 culturally and linguistically specific social services.

The Tongan language class is offered through the nonprofit’s Pacific Islander and Asian Family Center. It’s the national language of Tonga, a Polynesian country in the South Pacific.

In total, the nonprofit’s Pacific Islander and Asian Family Center helped serve 11,173 community members in 2020.

“I joined the Tongan class so I could learn how to speak Tongan to be able to communicate with my own grandparents and other people that can speak Tongan,” Hafoka said.

IRCO’s Pacific Island Community Coordinator, Kolini Fusitu’a, works within the organization’s Asian Family Center. His team works with about 200 kids in the area, depending programming. – PMG Photo: Jaime Valdez

Helping hand

The various education gaps facing students of color is a well-known problem in Oregon schools.

Whether measured in attendance, standardized test scores or graduation rates, black and brown students in Oregon do not perform as well as their white classmates.

In search of a solution, school districts often reach out or provide funding to organizations to help contact families they don’t have translators for, reach out to kids falling behind during remote learning or offer programs for families that are not available through the district.

One of those nonprofits is IRCO. 

The organization received almost $1.3 million from five school districts in and around the greater Portland metro area — Beaverton, David Douglas, Reynolds, Tigard-Tualatin and Portland Public Schools.

“What IRCO is doing is really supporting families and, not only ensuring that they have the information about what’s going on, but they’re working on empowerment strategies, so that parents and families have a sense of agency with their students as they think about enrollment,” said Dani Ledezma, senior adviser of racial equity and social justice at Portland Public Schools.

In the second quarter of the 2020-21 school year, IRCO served 53 students at PPS, with more than 116 hours of service, Ledezma said.

The organization works at three high schools within the district.

Most recently, IRCO served 13 high school students who are either African immigrants, Pacific Islander or Slavic. The nonprofit provided academic support, tutoring and credit retrieval — a strategy that lets students re-take a previously failed course and earn the credit they missed.

Ledezma says that culturally specific organization also helps families, so students can then focus on their education.

At Portland Public Schools, IRCO also serves three middle schools within the district — George, Harrison Park and Roseway Heights. According to IRCO, 15 students received more than 85 hours of service from the organization during the last quarter.

“They focused in on a mentoring strategy to give students an adult face who’s really caring about them but also reflects on their lived experience and themselves demographically,” Ledezma said.

“With positive cultural identify development and advocacy, they served 17 middle school students,” she added. “What they’re really doing is engage in activities that reinforce a positive cultural identity … making sure that students in those formative years feel a positive sense of who they are culturally.”

With the nationwide increase in hate speech towards Asian and Pacific Islander communities during the pandemic, Ledezma says these types of services are vital because students can be in a space centered on inclusion and racial justice.

When asked if the needs of students have increased during the pandemic, Ledezma said she doesn’t have specific numbers, but added that the district has seen an increased need among students whom culturally based organizations are serving.

“The pandemic has highlighted the ways that there were disparities in terms of health, safety and economics,” she said. “It’s true that families of color, particularly Latino and Black families, are more susceptible to contracting COVID. But we also know that families of color are more susceptible to the economic fallout.”

Districts have asked for more help connecting students with basic needs, Ledezma said.

IRCO also has been a lifeline for families needing rental or utility assistance.

According to the nonprofit, staff helped more than 1,400 Pacific Islanders during the pandemic with gift cards, personal protective equipment such as masks, and food boxes. IRCO also staffed COVID-19 testing events for communities not comfortable being tested.

IRCO’s Pacific Island Community Coordinator Kolini Fusitu’a, who works within the center, says his team works with about 200 kids in the area, depending on programming.

Those students are tracked by the Oregon Department of Education in the category of Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander. Their numbers are so small in most districts that it’s difficult to draw conclusions, but in Portland Public Schools, where there are more than 450 Pacific Islander/Native Hawaiian students, their attendance rate was at 85.1%, the lowest among any tracked racial group, and nearly 11 percentage points below the rate for white students (96%).

In the Beaverton School District, which has more than 400 Pacific Islander/Native Hawaiian students, their attendance rate was also the lowest among all groups.

Fusitu’a says school districts have reached out to the nonprofit to help strengthen communication with families.

“Parents in the community are intimidated not knowing how to use technology, so we have to go back and work with them on getting comfortable with Zoom,” Fusitu’a said. “Before, they weren’t answering phone calls from the school. Now, the school has to Zoom with them, so that’s even more of a challenge.”


Little-known language, big need

To help build and strengthen relationships with Pacific Islander families in the community, Fusitu’a helped create the Tongan language class for the center,

“That’s how we pass our history — through singing and dance performance, because we didn’t have a written language,” he said.

Sosefina Talanoa, 49, teaches the class. As the only Tongan language teacher in Oregon, her class focuses on speaking practice, dancing and singing.

“Speaking in Tongan is very important … to teach our culture in our own language is very helpful,” Talanoa said. “Our students can then understand our behavior and attitudes by learning about our history.”

Students meet once a week for up to two hours, depending on the lesson. Tuesdays are reserved for elementary school students, while Wednesdays are for middle schoolers and Thursdays are dedicated to high school students.

“At the beginning, I was so scared,” she recalled about starting her teaching career at IRCO. “I know to speak Tongan more than English. … But at the same time, I feel excited that I know that I have this with the students. Even if they’re born in America, they are Tongan. I want them to feel proud that they are Tongan.”

Talanoa says teaching Tongan in a virtual setting during the pandemic has been helpful, because more people can join through video conference calls.

The Tongan language class started off about four years ago as a sewing class for the community. Fusitu’a said it was an opportunity to engage parents on their own turf.

“At school, (parents) had a hard time coming to parent-teacher conferences and getting involved with school activities. So, when I saw that, I decided to start up the class,” he said.

Parents were astonished that someone would actually reach out to them, Fusitu’a said. Once they became comfortable, Fusitu’a says they started building relationship with schools and counselors.

Though the outreach is still in the early stages, the community leader saw one sign of success — an uptick in parents choosing to go to parent-teacher conferences, volunteering on field trips, at the library or at the school cafeteria.

“If you make them feel welcome, they can feel like, ‘Oh, we can make a change, we can contribute to our children’s education,’” Fusitu’a said.

When parents would bring children to the sewing class, that’s when Fusitu’a saw the opportunity to start a language class. He says the class grew from 10 people the first year with 100 students now participating.

Despite the success of the class, Fusitu’a had a tough time engaging parents and students in online language classes when COVID-19 hit back in March 2020. He said it was important to keep up the intergenerational learning as part of the class, but didn’t know how long parents would continue to engage in a mostly digital world.

He says the numbers are better now but he hopes to hire someone to help the Tongan language teacher. The demand is there, he said, but resources need to catch-up.

When asked about the science behind this method of learning, Fusitu’a said it was just something the center figured would be beneficial for the community. Considering Pacific Islanders live in a multi-generational household, he said it makes sense to include the entire family in a multi-generational and cultural class.

IRCO isn’t the only organization reaching out to multigenerational and underrepresented communities.


Utah: Engagement at its core

Receiving outside help can work for many school districts, but the Granite School District in Salt Lake Valley in Utah has a different approach.

With more than 67,000 students, Granite is the third largest district in Utah and is among the largest public-school districts in the nation, according to its website.

The school district has 63 elementary schools, 15 junior high schools, eight high schools and other special schools and programs.

There also are nearly 38,000 Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders residing in Utah, with more than 85% living in Salt Lake County and Utah County, said the Utah Department of Health.

A spokesperson for the school district said that they work with some culturally specific organizations. However, Granite’s efforts to address multicultural gaps is by engaging with parents as much as possible.

“We’ve provided a number of resources and are just working closely to engage families,” said Ben Horsley, the district’s communications director. “Prior to COVID, we have hosted a variety of cultural appreciation nights to bring out and celebrate different cultures within our communities. For our large refugee families, we hold regular refugee nights, where we come and talk about and provide resources to families in their own spoken languages.”

He added, “We do our own Pacific Islander night, where we come and celebrate that culture and celebrate some of the students’ successes and focus on what families can do to improve learning and engage within our school system to better assist our students.”

The Granite School District also offered online classes before COVID-19 and are continuing to do so, as the pandemic continues.

This district is different to those found in Oregon and other states because it has been open for in-person instruction since the start of the 2020-21 school year. District officials say, as of May 4, that about 15% of the students are distance-learning.

Horsley noted that the district also has an educational equity department that focuses on learning gaps for specific student groups who might be struggling. This allows for the district to offer resources and help in-house versus contracting or seeking help from outside organizations.

“Then, we obviously work to provide translation and support services for all of those families,” Horsley said. “It’s about recognizing and celebrating success. At the same time, identifying where parental engagement is simply the biggest factor in overcoming a lot of those challenges. So, the better we can enhance the engagement from those families, the more success we see from those students.”

Instead of focusing on just multicultural gaps, the district also highlights discrepancies along poverty lines.

The higher the poverty rate, the less they are able to engage with those families as well, Horsley said.

It’s all about creating opportunities, he added, to meaningfully engage with parents and help them understand how critical their role is in their child’s education.

One of the most important lessons the district has learned from COVID-19: simplifying resources.

“We learned really quickly last spring that parents were overwhelmed,” Horsley said. “Trying to simplify the types of apps and resources that are being utilized or use a common resource instead that parents can get used to.”

The Utah school district also saw success in creating a safe environment for in-person learning during a pandemic. Granite staff shared low COVID-19 transmission data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Despite the success with in-person instruction, Horsley said some students also saw success with online learning because they’re able to learn at an “accelerated pace.”

One family’s perspective

Arianna Gonzalez, 13, attends Cesar Chavez Middle School within the Portland Public Schools district. The seventh-grade student is part of Latino Network’s Conexiones program (see below: Different help, different ages) and says she joined the program to learn more Spanish and to become more outgoing.

“They teach you stuff that you don’t learn in school or nobody teaches at school in an appropriate way for our (family),” Gonzalez said.

Arianna’s mother, Maria Gonzalez, is also involved in Latino Network’s Colegio de Padres (Spanish for “College for Parents”). The program hosts workshops that help parents, many of whom are immigrants, to understand the education system in the United States and the challenges their children are facing.

Workshop topics include how to check academic progress and grades online, how to meet with teachers or principals, and saving for college.

Gonzalez said she joined the program because her daughter’s education is important to her.

“My favorite part of the organization is that they will try to help everyone,” she said, “not just the adults or parents but kids and teenagers having different types of programs.”

Gonzalez added that the organization has also helped with the on-going COVID-19 crisis.

“During the pandemic, we still had the Colegio de Padres video calls and that helped me during those hard times of quarantining at home,” Gonzalez said.

At PPS, 67 parents are enrolled in the same program.

At Tigard-Tualatin School District — a large suburban district, where Latino and Hispanic students make up more than a quarter of the student body — Latino Network’s program Juntos Apprendemos (Spanish for “Together we learn”) is offered at six of the district’s elementary schools. That includes Bridgeport, Deer Creek, Metzger, Templeton, Charles F Tigard, and Tualatin Elementary.

The program equips younger students and their parents with early literacy and school readiness skills needed to overcome barriers facing Spanish-speaking children in the community.

Since 2000, the program has served more than 1,650 Latino children and parents, according to Latino Network.

“They meet once a week for two hours, and the goal of that program is to prepare children to be successful in kindergarten,” said Tigard-Tualatin’s Assistant Superintendent Lisa McCall. “It also supports parents to empower them to be strong advocates for their children.”

McCall says Latino Network also has been helpful with a summer program helping keep students engaged through workshops and getting them ready to transition into kindergarten, particularly during the pandemic.

“Their support has been critical and vital in helping bridge that two-way communication and also help identify available resources for our families and students to connect them food or internet access,” she said.

Disappointing stats

Pamplin Media Group analyzed attendance data at 33 school districts in Oregon, including Tigard-Tualatin. In the first quarter of the 2020-21 school district, Latino and Hispanic students showed an attendance rate of 89% compared to 95% of white students. In the second quarter, attendance fell by all racial/ethnic groups tracked by the state. The rate for white students, dropped 2 percentage points. The rate for Latino and Hispanic students dropped 3 percentage points.

Tigard-Tualatin officials say that expanding programming — such as Conexiones and Escalera — with Latino Network has come up this year because of the shifting needs of students during the pandemic.

“The reason why we partner with our community members is related to what local community highlights as a need,” said Zinnia Un, Tigard-Tualatin’s director of equity. “Prior to COVID, there was an outcry from families that they needed support, so that’s why we built a contract for Latino Network aligned to families. With COVID happening, we’re hearing from our local communities that that they need more help for students, so those conversations are where we will have a focus with our partnership that stems from our communities.”

With COVID-19, funds might be in the air for organizations such as Latino Network as county, state and local school districts finalize their budgets.

The virus has bumped up the number of students who are a part of Latino Network’s educational programs. McCoy says 800 students participated throughout a year of remote learning.

“That speaks to the age development of the population that we’re working with is so social,” McCoy said. “It’s an important factor for everyone, but particularly for kids developing that social notion of having a space where you can just interact with your peers that is not focused on just that academic portion but explores culture and identity.”

McCoy said she doesn’t know if those numbers will dip as people head back to in-person activities, but she is hopeful the funding will be there to keep engaging Latino youth online or in the classroom.

One thing that the Latino Network and the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization have in common: Neither has plans to give up. Whether there is a pandemic to get through or parent-teacher conference to attend, Fusitu’a said he plans to keep finding new ways to engage the community.

“They weren’t giving up because they made sure that I know they’re not giving up,” he said.

Fusitu’a added that his position requires him to be on call 24/7, and he’s not stopping now.

“With our Pacific Island community, there are no office hours,” he said with a chuckle.

Different help, different ages

Latino Network, a culturally specific nonprofit agency in Portland, has been providing PPS with various programs since 2005. The organization focuses on practices and services that lifts up youth and families.

The organization’s school-based programs include Conexiones (Spanish for “Connections”), Ninth Grade Counts, and Escalera/Early Escalera (Spanish for “staircase or ladder”).

Conexiones is an afterschool program that sets-up college aspirations and provides academic support, community service projects and cultural connections. Ninth Grade Counts is a four-month program held in the summer; it mostly supports students as they make the transition to high school while earning academic credit.

Escalera and Early Escalera are year-round, college-preparation programs that empower students to overcome barriers, to graduate high school and to enter college prepared to succeed.

Melissa McCoy, Latino Network’s interim youth education director, says the department works with middle school and high school aged youth and their families across seven school districts; Portland Public Schools and the Tigard-Tualatin, Parkrose, Centennial, David Douglas, Reynolds and Gresham-Barlow school districts.

 “We have thankfully been able to establish good partnerships with all of the districts we’re in,” McCoy said.

With Portland Public Schools, McCoy attends quarterly meetings with district level members, school principals and administrators. At those meetings, the district can inform Latino Network of the challenges they face, and the nonprofit also is able to inform PPS about the successes and hardships within the organization. 

“Informing the school that our community is important, the relationship, the phone calls but not the robo calls,” she added.

Latino Network’s early childhood and youth education funding received about $1.57 million of funding from three Portland area districts.

Portland Public Schools, the largest school district in Oregon, provides the nonprofit with more than $1 million in funding. Tigard-Tualatin comes in second with more than $300,000, and David Douglas School District at $66,600.

McCoy says these contracts represent a portion of the cost of the programs for children, youths and families in schools. Latino Network also receives money through county and state funds along with foundation grants.

Currently, more than 50 students are enrolled in Conexiones with about 70 students in Early Escalara.

In the Escalera program, 106 youths participate at six high schools across the district — Benson Polytechnic, Madison, Roosevelt, Franklin, Jefferson and Alliance.

The district also recently added positive culturally identity development programs, such as MEChA, for middle school students to participate in. Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán, or MEChA, is a Mexican American student organization group that focuses on higher education, culture and self-determination.

“It helps middle school students get a strong sense of agency,” said Ledezma Portland Public Schools’ senior adviser of racial equity and social justice. “Lots of different ways that students can engage positively with each other in activities that are reaffirming to their cultural identity and pride.” 

Reporting intern Nick Rosenberger contributed to this report.