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Rick Bowmer, Associated Press 

President Russell M. Nelson, raises his hand during a sustaining vote during The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' twice-annual church conference Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, in Salt Lake City. Nelson has rolled out a number of policy changes during his first two years at the helm of the faith, leading to heightened anticipation for what he may announce at this weekend's conference in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Becoming educado: How Utah County's schools are working to engage the Latino community

For years, Spanish-speaking parents have sat through graduation ceremonies not understanding a single word.

Not anymore.

“We saw that gap and we said, ‘this has to change,’” said Belinda Talonia, the former administrator of Mountain View High School in Orem.

This summer was the first time there was simultaneous Spanish-to-English translation at the high school’s graduation ceremony. Talonia, now the principal of Orem Junior High School, plans to continue offering translation services for Latino parents at her school’s events.

Latinos made up 17% of Utah’s K-12 students in 2017, according to information from the Utah State Board of Education. And as the number of Latino students increases in the state, so have the efforts of to include the community in students’ education.

Eliminating barriers

Teachers have complained to Rachel Quintana that they feel Latino parents don’t care.

“It wasn’t true,” said Quintana, the parent/student liaison at Orem Junior High School. “It was that the person didn’t understand the language, and they didn’t understand the system, and they didn’t understand how they can help. Nobody explained it to them.”

About 39% of the school’s students were Latino during the 2017-18 school year, according to information from the Utah State Board of Education. Engagement rates of Latino parents, however, have not always matched those numbers.

Quintana said there were very few Latino parents at parent-teacher conferences when she began the job five years ago. Now the school has a 60% attendance for Latinos.

Latino parents face multiple barriers when it comes to engaging with a school, which can include not being familiar enough with English to feel comfortable communicating with a school, not understanding the system and having limitations on time. There’s also a cultural divide between the educational system in Latin American countries versus what is expected in the United States.

Talonia, the first Latina secondary principal in the Alpine School District, said that in most Latin American cultures teachers are seen as professionals equal to doctors and lawyers. Just like how someone in the U.S. wouldn’t tell a surgeon how to do their job, Latino parents wouldn’t do the same for teachers.

“It is expected that they are the professional and they are going to better understand how to teach my child,” Talonia said.

There’s also the concept of “educados,” the Spanish word for educated, which refers to raising a child to be well-mannered.

“I am biased, but I think it is beautiful,” Talonia said. “It is beautiful that this culture thinks that educating their children means teaching them to be good human beings. As a parent, that is the greatest legacy I can give you, educado, being educated.”

Talonia said that when Latino parents attend parent-teacher conferences and ask how their child is doing, they’re referring to how their child is behaving. When a teacher responds by explaining that a child doesn’t understand concepts, Talonia said Latino parents can get confused.

She’s challenged teachers to consider the “what if?” of situations and assume that parents will come. She also asks educators to reconsider what it means to be an engaged parent. Talonia said that can involve a parent reading with their child nightly, making sure to come home to spend time with a child between working two jobs or taking the day off work to go into a school to pay fees or support their child.

“I think that as schools, we need to open our hearts and our souls and see that parents are trying to do the best they can,” Talonia said.

Engagement, she said, goes both ways.

“Nowhere in parent engagement do I hear that parents have to do all the work,” she said.

She’s pushed for social media posts to be in both Spanish and English, and her weekly principal newsletter goes out in both languages, as well. Having a parent/student liaison, she said, helps add a position that is flexible and able to make home visits, translate and support teachers.

“This position is vital, and I don’t understand how schools can function without that,” she said.

Quintana works with parents who sometimes show up to the school during their lunch breaks, in uniform and ready to help out however they can in their limited time. She also teaches parents how to use the Alpine School District’s online systems to stay up-to-date on how their child is doing academically.

“We take away the barriers and we help them say that now it’s not a barrier, it’s a tool,” she said.

Celebrating success

Talonia’s secret to engaging parents is simple.

“If you celebrate students, parents will come,” Talonia said. “If we are constantly calling home to nag on their kids, to tell them what is wrong with their kid, to tell them what they have to do to fix their kid, nobody is going to show up. If you want your Latino families — if you want any family — to show up, celebrate their kids.”

Not only do the Latino families show up to watch their children get awards, but they’ll dress up and bring everyone, from younger siblings to grandparents.

She’s allocated money to go toward parent engagement activities, which could include a duplication of the Somos Mountain View event where teachers nominate students for awards. Talonia said the awards give a chance for students to be recognized for achievements outside of their GPA.

The school is looking to build a food pantry, will host a mental health night in Spanish that will be open to the entire district and holds a growing Jaguar Spirit Night. Talonia would also like to see a formalized parent academy.

“If we want to have people feel comfortable in our school, then let’s bring them in for more than discipline issues,” she said. “If the only reason a parent comes into our school is because we are disciplining their child, then we have failed.”

Creating leaders

There’s nine years worth of Latinos in Action class photos lining the brightly-colored walls of Lucy Ordaz Sanchez’s classroom at Dixon Middle School in Provo. Ordaz Sanchez, who teaches both the Latinos in Action class and family and consumer science, set out as a teacher to have an impact on Latino students at the school.

“I want to be that teacher that I always wish I had,” Ordaz Sanchez said.

Her class at Dixon Middle School, a school that was 36% Latino last year, creates that space for students at the age where they are discovering who they want to be.

“They find a place where they belong and we believe in each other,” she said.

Latinos in Action is a curriculum designed to develop leadership skills and bridge the opportunity gap between Latino and Caucasian students. Ordaz Sanchez will take the students on field trips to universities, assigns them to learn about their family history, encourages them to pronounce their last names like their mothers do and to be proud of their culture.

The students form tight bonds, and have joined together to visit injured athletes in the hospital or make thousands of tamales to help a local family after the death of a child.

Within the first two weeks of school she has a mandatory meeting with parents where she goes over the class, encourages them to spend time with their children and shares personal stories.

“Somehow it always happens that we are full of tears,” Ordaz Sanchez said. “The parents see themselves in the way that I was raised and how I wish things would have been a little different, and how they want to change.”

She constantly keeps parents involved and encourages mothers and fathers to come.

While other teachers can get overwhelmed with thinking about the effort of reaching out to Latino families, Ordaz Sanchez said all it takes is to try. Latino parents want to get involved, but aren’t sure what they’re allowed to do.

“They just need to know how, and sometimes they don’t know how to get involved,” said said.

She points to one mother who didn’t know that she had access to the school.

Ordaz Sanchez also encourages teachers to ask their students about what type of teacher they’d want their instructor to be. She’s heard students who have said that soccer could be used as an incentive for them, and said it’s especially important to hear from the troublemakers.

“It changes quite a bit if you take the time to understand and listen, and to ask,” she said.

breaking featured
New Latter-day Saint temple to be built in Orem

A new temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will be built in Orem, the church announced Saturday night.

Church President Russell M. Nelson announced the Orem temple during the Women’s Session of the church’s 189th Semiannual General Conference was one of eight new locations where temples will be constructed, and was one of two new locations in Utah.

The exact location of the future temple has not been released. Orem city posted to Facebook Saturday evening that they had no prior knowledge of the announcement and had no additional information on the future temple.

The Orem temple will become the sixth temple in Utah County. Four are currently in operation — the Provo Temple, the Provo City Center Temple, Mount Timpanogos Temple and the Payson Temple — and another in Saratoga Springs was announced in April 2017.

The other temple in Utah that was announced Saturday will be built in Taylorsville.

Temples will also be located in Freetown, Sierra Leone; Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea; Bentonville, Arkansas; Bacolod, Philippines; McAllen, Texas and Cobán, Guatemala.

Speakers encourage Christ-centered life, announce youth changes at Latter-day Saint general conference

A crisp October morning greeted members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from around the world who were in Salt Lake City on Saturday for the 189th Semiannual General Conference of the church.

The highlight of the two regular Saturday sessions came when President Russell M. Nelson announced a change to the organization of the church’s Young Men and Young Women’s organization leadership.

Leaders announced ward bishops would directly oversee the Young Men’s organization and that the presidencies of those groups at the ward level would be discontinued. The announcement was followed by additional messages to the youth of the church in Saturday afternoon’s session.

Saturday afternoon session

New additional adjustments to the youth programs of the church including the organizational leadership of the Aaronic priesthood and Young Women were announced in Saturday afternoon’s session by Nelson and clarified in a following message by Elder Quentin L. Cook.

“The adjustments we now announce are intended to help young men and young women develop their sacred personal potential,” Nelson said. “We want also to strengthen Aaronic Priesthood quorums and Young Women classes and provide support to bishops and other adult leaders as they serve the rising generation.”

Cook added, “These adjustments will help bishops and their counselors focus on their core responsibilities to the youth and Primary children. [The adjustments will also] place the power and duties of the Aaronic Priesthood at the center of every young man’s personal life and goals.”

The majority of the afternoon session was directed toward the youth and parents of the church discussing the importance of the youth of the church as a battalion to gather scattered Israel. It spoke of their potential and to teach them to have faith, to come follow Him in home-centered learning.

As part of the messages to youth, Elder Ronald A. Rasband gave thanks to the association the church has had with the Boy Scouts of America.

“Our association with the Boy Scouts of America, as it now concludes will always be an important legacy to me and the church,” Rasband said. “To the scouting organizations, to the scores of men and women who have served diligently as scout leaders, to the moms – real credit goes there; and to the young men who have participated in scouting, we say ‘thank you.’”

Elder L. Todd Budge of the Seventy reminded youth and members of the hope in Christ and to have a resilient trust in Him.

“Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter,” Budge said.

Budge added, “as we choose to consistently and resiliently trust in Jesus Christ and His divine purposes in our lives, He will visit us with assurances, speak peace to our souls, and cause us to ‘hope for our deliverance in him.’”

In the closing statement of the session, Rasband said, “The Lord will establish your words and sanction your deeds as you strive with unwearied diligence to build up your lives, your families, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

Saturday morning session

Coming unto Christ, becoming his true disciples and finding the joy in Him was the predominant theme from speakers during the morning session.

Talks were provided by members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the Seventy and auxiliary organizations.

As the first — and often favored — speaker, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles welcomed the congregation to the event and encouraged members to find Christ in conference.

He asked the congregation to Come unto him — the “beating heart of the eternal gospel.”

Holland said a quest for faith and conviction is the members’ purpose in these conferences and, “by joining with us today you will realize that this search is a broadly shared endeavor.”

“Here on these grounds you see families of all sizes coming from every direction,” he said. “Old friends embrace in joyful reunion, a marvelous choir is warming up, and protesters shout from their favorite soapbox. Missionaries of an earlier day look for former companions, while recently-returned missionaries look for entirely new companions (if you know what I mean!).

“And photos? Heaven help us! With cellphones in every hand, we have morphed from ‘every member a missionary’ to ‘every member a photographer.’ In the midst of all of this delightful commotion, one could justifiably ask, ‘What does it all mean?’”

Holland answered, “To grasp the vision we are seeking, the healing that He promises, the significance we somehow know is here, we must cut through the commotion — as joyful as it is — and fix our attention on Him.”

Members were encouraged to become full followers and disciples of Christ. Elder Terrance M. Vinson of the Presidency of the Seventy asked if members were “fair dinkum’”about the Gospel, referring to a phrase used in his native Australia, which means people being what they say they are.

He added that being halfhearted is not “fair dinkum’” and that God is not known for showering praise on the lukewarm.

Brother Stephen W. Owen, General Young Men’s President, directed his talk to the youth of the church about receiving revelation in a world full of noises, like social media. He encouraged young members to receive revelation through the new Youth and Children programs the church is starting in January and to utilize the home-centered learning with church support.

With the new program, while much of the learning is at home, the church offers the sacrament and other spiritual offerings to bolster the home.

Sister Michelle Craig, who also works with the youth of the church as the First Counselor in the Young Women’s General Presidency, encouraged members to make time in their life for Christ and to find ways to increase in spiritual capacity to receive revelation.

Elder Dale Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles encouraged the audience to develop attributes of Christ through covenant making.

“God invites us to cast our old ways completely out of reach and begin a new life in Christ,” Renlund said. “This happens as we develop faith in the Savior, which begins by hearing the testimony of those who have faith. Thereafter, faith deepens as we act in ways that anchor us more firmly to Him.”

Renlund continued, “It might be nice if increased faith were transmitted like the flu or the common cold. Then, a simple ‘spiritual sneeze’ would build faith in others. But it does not work that way. The only way faith grows if for an individual to act in faith.”

Renlund concluded, “You will become more like the Savior as you always remember Him, follow Him, and adore Him.”

Closing the morning session, President Dallin H. Oaks, of the First Presidency, said that it is important to discern church doctrine from individual revelation or comment and to always trust in the Lord.

Conference sessions will continue Sunday at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Orem Catholic church hosts 'blessing of the animals'

A small crowd of pet owners gathered outside the Saint Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Orem on Saturday morning for the annual tradition of the blessing of the animals.

The tradition dates back to when St. Francis was alive in the 12th and 13th century, Father Gustavo Vidal explained. St. Francis, the patron saint of animals and ecology, understood that everything was created by God, Vidal said.

“He understood ... that everything is a reflection of the beauty and the greatness of God,” Vidal said. “That’s why he ... never killed an animal, he never did anything to harm the forest or anything like that because he understood that the earth and the cosmos and everything that is there has been created and has come from God.”

Although the feast of St. Francis is actually celebrated on Oct. 4, the day St. Francis was buried, the blessing of the animals is typically scheduled for a Saturday so people who work during the week are able to attend.

Janeth Mercado attended the blessing of the animals for the first time with her son, Daniel, and their dog Canelo. Canelo is still just a puppy, Mercado explained, a gift to her kids last Christmas. She said her kids, Daniel and his two sisters, have been impatiently waiting to have Canelo blessed.

Part of attending for Mercado is to remember St. Francis, she said, but it’s also to thank God for his creations — especially for the creation of their dog Canelo — and to ask for Canelo to be blessed with safety and health.

“It’s to know that by this blessing, hopefully he (Canelo) will stay safe and God will protect him when we’re not around,” Mercado said. “It’s just transmitting that faith, and sense, it helps (my kids) realize that God is the creator of life and he’s the only one that can take it away.”

Many of the animals brought to the blessing were puppies being blessed for the first time in their life, even some puppies just a few weeks old. Lyna Lopez, however, brought two cats in carriers, Samson and Kiki. She’s participated in the blessing of the animals for a long time, she said, but it will be the first time for her grandniece and her grandniece’s cat.

Like Mercado, Lopez does it to partake of tradition, and also because she hopes God will protect her cat Samson.

“We’ve got certain traditions of the baptism and the sacraments and stuff, so it’s nice that St. Francis also wanted to include the animals because they are also God’s creatures,” Lopez said. “Because (Samson is) an outside cat ... I like to have him blessed so that he’s taken care of outside, that extra protection.”

Vidal gave a general blessing to all of the animals and pet owners present, and spoke about how God has used animals to serve his purposes and that animals share in Christ’s redemption. Vidal thanked God for the opportunity to train animals to serve humans, and to have them as companions.

After pronouncing the blessing in both English and Spanish, Vidal sprinkled holy water over all the animals individually. One little girl even brought her tiny pet turtle to be blessed. Vidal said the strangest pet he’s ever blessed has been a snake.

“We do blessings for everything in the church, (because) we understand that everything that we have comes from God,” Vidal said. “But we give it back to God through the blessing.”