Community Connections: The LPS Youth Development Team and bilingual liaisons

The LPS Youth Development Team and the LPS bilingual liaisons play a crucial role in the education and well-being of our students and families. We recently spoke with Pete Ferguson, coordinator of the Youth Development Team, and Oscar Pohirieth, cultural specialist and coordinator for the Bilingual Liaison Program, to learn more about these dedicated LPS employees. This is the first in a series of interviews and stories that will highlight the work of the Youth Development Team and bilingual liaisons.

Pete Ferguson

LPS Communications: Describe the LPS Youth Development Team and the role you play with the school district. 

Pete Ferguson: I serve as the coordinator for the Youth Development Team and it's just a fantastic group of individuals who empower scholars and work with families and support staff. I often say they're the behind the scenes individuals - but they're always on the scene. What they do is work from a strengths-based perspective. They serve as a liaison and an advocate that supports families, supports scholars’ well-being, helps enhance and helps scholars go towards those hopes and dreams that their families have for them. They want them to fulfill whatever their fullest potential might be. 

We have a number of individuals that just have a tremendous amount of talent and experience in different areas. There are individuals who have taught, individuals who have been veterans and served this country, accountants, people who are proficient in nonprofit organizations - a real eclectic group that has come together with a like mind and a similar philosophy, which at the core is building relationships - not supplanting and not enabling, but empowering wherever they may go and having a presence. They can't be everywhere in the district - we're a small but mighty group of individuals, but they have an essence, so they may not be on the south side of town for that day, but there's an essence that there's an African American advocate within the district who can support, enhance, advocate and provide awareness in a positive way. We'd like to have more of a physical presence with more bodies, just like we'd like to have more teachers and administrators, but I think the nice part is that these individuals are not only there on a day- to-day basis, but they're immersed in the communities that they serve. You know, there’s no clock from 8 to 5 or 8 to 4:30, it really is a 24-hour passion and an investment that they make. 

LPS Communications: Take us back to last March, and then through the summer, what was that work like for your team?

Pete Ferguson: I like to say that, contrary to popular belief, there have been no days off, and I don't say that in a way for empathy or “wow.” I think our teachers invested a tremendous amount, our administration, our community supports - a lot of people. But for our advocates, I think March heightened what they have been, what they are, and what they will continue to do. 

People ask what changed - did you increase your support, increase your services? We continue to do a lot of what we had done, and that's about engaging, and so what I have to do is give them credit because we did a great job. We did a great job of trying to get devices out and connecting people, and we recognize that not everybody was connected to math, science and English - we really do recognize that, everybody is aware of that. I think as we tweak and look at things, we definitely want our scholars to be proficient in those areas. But what our advocates did was make sure that scholars and families remained connected to the value of school, and I think that's something that when you're gone for five or six months and you see the community or you see some social unrest, how do you keep people engaged to the value of school? They were that link, they were a human device that was more important than any hotspot or anything else. They were the connectors to school and what the value of Lincoln Public Schools can be to them, not only at that time, but also moving forward in the future. 

LPS Communications: How about the transition back to school? How has that gone? 

Pete Ferguson: I think there are always things that you would love to go - I don't wanna’ say smoother, but what I always say is, you want to see our scholars where they belong. But wherever they’re at is where they belong, as long as it's not at the mall between 8 and 3 on a weekday. (laughs) You know, if it's at home and that's where the safety and the comfort and the wraparound can be, our advocates are providing that support and we recognize that. If it's in the halls of Belmont Elementary School, or if it's at Southeast or North Star or Lincoln High, our advocates are there. I have to give them a tremendous amount of credit because, I’ll say it again, they have not taken a day off. They don't look for that credit, they don't look for those awards, they don't look for those socially distant high fives, but what I will tell you is they make a tremendous difference and they have enhanced any of the success that I feel like we have had as a district in terms of engagement.

Oscar Pohirieth  

LPS Communications: For people who don't know, talk about what you do and the role of bilingual liaisons at Lincoln Public Schools.

Oscar Pohirieth: I serve in the capacity of cultural specialist and bilingual liaison coordinator for this district. I have the pleasure of working with 24 bilingual liaisons who speak 13 of the major languages spoken within Lincoln Public Schools. What we do is serve as the cultural broker. We serve as the main line of communication between schools and the homes of immigrant and refugee students and families. So every piece of information that goes from this district to the homes, we are able to translate, we are able to communicate with those families. And any information that comes from those homes back to the district, we're also able to communicate with our educators. We are that link of communication, not only within Lincoln Public Schools, but we also are aware of community services out there. So our families can have access to that much needed help in terms of emergencies or in this particular case, COVID-19.

LPS Communications: What role did the liaisons play last March when the pandemic arrived?

Oscar Pohireth: I believe the bilingual liaisons played a very important role when it came to the communication of remote learning during that time - and today - about remote learning and in-person education. But if I were to think back to what happened in March, and all of a sudden everything shutting down, we all had to come to an emergency mode in terms of the fact that we needed to reach out to all of our families in this district and be able to communicate effectively in their native languages, and be able to say, “Look, this is what's going to happen now. Now remote learning will be taking place at home, and now you're going to have to use technology, and now you're going to have to understand how to get into Zoom and how to communicate with your teachers, and now you're going to have to learn how to use Gmail, how to use the LPS portal, how to send and receive information” - that was overwhelming. Our families were not ready to receive that type of information, were not ready to learn overnight that type of information and technology skills. So it took - and it is taking - a great deal of time and effort on the part of the bilingual liaisons and on the part of the families in order to get the idea that this is the new normal.

LPS Communications: How has it been going since the start of school?

Oscar Pohireth: Well, I think since March we have had a chance to educate our families, to prepare our families with basic technology literacy. I am happy to report that our families - immigrant, refugee families - are getting the message that technology and the use of Zoom, the use of the LPS portal, the use of communication lines in terms of technology, will be keys for the advancement in the area of education for their students.

LPS Communications: You mentioned one of the key roles of the liaisons is connecting families to community resources, and I'm sure that was even more important over these last five or six months. What kind of work did they do in those areas? What were some important connections they made?

Oscar Pohireth: Meeting the family’s needs in terms of how to have access to food, how to have access to healthcare, how to have access to housing, paying bills, how to have access to mental health - these are things that yes, Lincoln Public Schools understands that we need to help our families, because we may not directly offer those services. But if we communicate with our community, we may be able to find help, and that's where cultural centers come in handy, because they have direct resources for these families. Bilingual liaisons were able to tell their families, if you go to the Hispanic Center, this is where you're going to receive help, or if you go to the Center for People in Need, this is where you're going to find food and certain items, or if you go to the Asian Community and Cultural Center, these are the services that they provide. We have to be aware of what we have available out there, so even though we focus our attention in the area of education, we cannot miss the fact that we have other service providers out there that are also intentionally helping all families.

Published: October 1, 2020, Updated: October 1, 2020