In the growing — and increasingly diverse — Verona Area School District, a challenge has presented itself in recent years: an increasing number of student households who primarily speak Spanish at home, meaning many parents miss information about what’s happening at the schools.
Guidance Counselor Jennifer Schultz “would kind of just lament that whatever I was writing, there were about five hundred or so families in the school district that would just really have no opportunity to read it or get that information because they’re Spanish speaking households,” says Verona Press assistant editor Scott Girard, who covers the schools for the weekly newspaper.
“Basically what we were looking at was the different areas of entry points into the school system for information for Spanish speaking families,” says Schultz. “It occurred to me that even though the Verona Press isn’t a school publication by any means, a lot of people get their information about the school system through the Verona Press, through the coverage that they do.”
At first, Schultz tried putting together a student-written Spanish language newsletter called Nuestra Experienca, or Our Experience.
“I worked with a group of students. They were middle school and high school students primarily. Usually during weekends and breaks,” Schultz says. “We did a newsletter. Basically, it was just two-page newsletter. Front and back. We tried to do anything that the kids were involved in. For instance, one of our students was involved in volleyball. We were trying to think, ‘Okay. What would your mom want to know about volleyball?’ Well, she’d want to know how often practice was. She’d want to know how much it cost. She’d want to know if it was good for me to get into college.”
Meanwhile, in the Verona Press newsroom, Girard was knocking around some ideas of his own, including the possibility of a Spanish-language publication of some kind. Only trouble? No Spanish-speaking reporters in the newsroom.
“It’s one of those things that if you keep talking about it, eventually, you find a solution,” Girard says. “Jenny and I were talking last year, and my boss and I. Obviously the biggest hurdle is translating into Spanish, and we didn’t have anyone in our office who spoke Spanish. Something we thought of was, what if we had students, from these households with Spanish speaking parents, but who have come up through the school system and are bilingual or at least heading toward bilingualism, help us in translating these articles. So I went to Jenny, and she was just amazing at helping connect us with a few students. She had a newsletter, that went to Spanish speaking families, that students worked on. We got connected with a few of them and over the past five months the process has kind of developed and grown into something a lot more sustainable and we’re up to about eight students now working on it. Pretty regularly, once a week we all get together, and then they do some work outside of that time. Which is really cool.”
That process has now produced five monthly editions of Corre la Voz (which means “spread the word”), a new print Spanish-language newspaper produced by the Verona Press, supported by advertisers, and distributed free of charge through the school district and businesses throughout Verona and Fitchburg.
“We take the articles we’ve written about the school district and run them through Google Translate, which does a very rough job,” Girard says. “And that’s part of why we need the students. The students basically go through and copy edit, except at a higher level. I’ve learned a lot over the last five months. There’s just so many fine decisions to make in the Spanish language. There are multiple words for the same thing and it’s fascinating to sit around and hear these students discuss, ‘Well, I think this would make sense in this instance,’ and hearing these students debate it. And there’s a couple staff members who let us use their classroom, during the lunch period, to foster that. And they’ll get in on the discussion, and talk with the students about vocabulary and stuff. It’s been very cool to hear those types of discussions going on.’
One of those teachers is 6-12 English Language Learners coordinator Julie Jenewein.
“It’s been very exciting and rewarding for me to see the kids not only speak in both languages, but to start thinking in both languages,” Jenewein says. “When you run things through Google Translate it’s just literally translating word for word. It’s interesting to hear (the students) actually talking about the use of language in context and how different groups of words can mean one thing in English and not the same thing in Spanish.”
“I think the newspaper is really important because my mom never knew anything that was going on in the district and now she does because of the newspaper,” says Verona Area High School senior Andrea Corona León, one of the students who works on the translation. And, she says, “it definitely improves my Spanish.”
That’s another important piece of the puzzle — the educational experience for the translators.
“I want to become a bilingual teacher in the future, and it’s really helping me take a better grasp of the language and really being able to shift from one to the other,” says senior Mariane Morales. “Sometimes, especially living in the United States, where English is the dominant language in schools, it’s really kind of hard to keep that fluency in Spanish because you’re constantly speaking English at school and everywhere else.”
Many of the students are working toward their Seal of Biliteracy, a new program implemented in 2016 by the state Department of Public Instruction. Earning the seal requires a certain number of hours working on bilingual projects, and translating for Corre la Voz counts. This year’s seniors will be the first to earn the seal.
Girard says Corre la Voz may also become an even deeper experience in Spanish-language writing and journalism as students begin writing their own original articles in Spanish.
“I’ve been part of the (student newspaper) The Cat’s Eye here in Verona Area High School, and it’s really different because there I’m writing articles but here I’m translating,” says Morales. “Hopefully I’ll be able to write some articles for Corre la Voz.”
Sophomore Jorge Soto Aleman would like to write profiles of teachers, “about them and what they do because there isn’t much connection between students and teachers” outside the classroom — and Spanish-speaking parents might not get to know English-speaking teachers very well.
Girard says the response from the business community has been encouraging — which is important for a new print publication.
“Our ad sales person found a lot of interest right away in being a part of it,” he says. “Our ability to get enough copy translated is what’s keeping her from selling even more. It’s been great to see that interest.”
That advertiser support has allowed the Verona Press’s parent company, Dubuque-based Woodward Communications, to remain supportive.
“Ultimately, I think, as with any venture, if you can financially justify it, go for it,” Girard says. “Right now, our ad salesperson’s doing a great job at letting us financially justify it. It’s rare, right now, in the newspaper industry, to be a part of a new print product. And be a part of starting that up. And I really am thankful that, you know, we found a group of people who are willing to work toward that and that we work for a company that is willing to let us try these types of things.”