MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Teresa Elmore walked calmly from the Brewbaker Primary cafeteria to the office and back again during the school's open house just before the year started.
Before she finished answering the questions of one family, two more lined up to wait their turn. She explained bus routes, pick-up times and classroom assignments. She checked to make sure students were properly enrolled. She stopped and gave hugs to returning students.
As English-speaking staff members passed out bus assignments to families, Elmore quickly translated the animal words written on the sheets of paper, indicating which route their student would ride.
'Cat' became 'Gato.' 'Turtle' became 'Tortuga.'
Within an hour, she had assisted more than 15 parents with the process of getting their children ready for their first day.
Elmore is essential to everyday life at Brewbaker. And her job commitment to the Spanish speaking families the school serves goes far beyond the walls of the elementary.
Nearly a quarter of the students are categorized as English learners. The fact that she is bilingual helps those parents who are eager but apprehensive because they are unable to ask their questions in English.
By the school's account, more than 100 families fall into this category. Elmore serves as the bridge between that gap. She is the key to allowing parents to engage in their children's education.
Situated in the front office, her interaction with Spanish speakers starts early, Elmore said.
"They come in from the time I walk in the door. Sometimes they're waiting outside. They stop me in the parking lot. It's all throughout the day that they come and go," she said.
As that state's Hispanic population grows, Brewbaker Primary represents just one of many schools with the unique challenges of educating students who come to school unable to speak English. For many districts, there is not adequate funding and training for teachers don't exist, causing caseloads be twice the size they should.
Elmore's duties include translating documents sent home with students, interpreting for parents when they come in with questions and at large parent gatherings and IEP meetings. She also checks in with students she knows can't speak English yet, to give them a sense of comfort during the school day.
In an effort to increase parent engagement, Elmore worked with the school's English as a Second Language teacher to start a study workshop for Spanish-speaking parents. A weekly meeting, the two provided the group of moms with information on what their children were learning and how they could help them at home.
And then, earlier this year, a 7-year-old student whose family does not speak English, was killed in a car crash.
"They had never made a funeral arrangement so they didn't know who to speak to or how to do it," Elmore said. The school helped raise funds for the funeral, and Elmore went with the family to the funeral home and to the cemetery.
Another student at the school suffers from regular seizures. Her mom speaks only Spanish, so Elmore goes to the hospital with them. She now knows all of the medications the student takes.
"She gets so nervous," Elmore said of the mom. "She tells me 'I don't know what I'd do without you.'"
Before starting this role two years ago, Elmore worked as an aide in the school's language-impaired unit for 12 years. As the demographics of the school began to change with more Hispanic students enrolling, Elmore was being pulled from the classroom more and more to help with interpreting.
"I think about how terrifying that would be — to be in another country and drop my 5-year-old child off with adults who cannot understand them," Principal Catherine Rogers said about putting Elmore in the position of parent liaison.
"She has a kind heart and genuine concern for our children," Rogers said. "I had no doubt she would give our EL (English language) parents the same care and attention she has given to our students."
Rogers said parental involvement has increased, thanks to the work being done by Elmore. That is Elmore's primary goal.
"They would have no way to communicate with the teachers or the administration. They wouldn't know how to help children with homework," Elmore said. "We don't want the language barrier to be a reason that the parents are not involved in their child's education."