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Knox County Schools Welcome Center helps non-English speaking families get involved in student life

Students in Knox County speak more than 119 languages, with over 5,500 students speaking Spanish or Mayan dialects.

KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. — Inside a brick building off Chickamauga Avenue in North Knoxville, visitors can hear conversations in dozens of languages on any given day.

It's the Knox County Schools Welcome Center where families and students have a chance to comfortably be a part of their communities and where parents can get involved in their students' education.

"We're the connection between schools and community, especially for the families of children that are English learners," said Sabrina Sarcos.

She works as a family community liaison (FCL) for families who speak Spanish. One of the FCL's speaks Spanish and Portuguese. Sarcos also said that she speaks Italian, which can be useful in her job.

There are more than 119 different languages spoken by students and families in Knox County Schools.

Just over 9 percent of students speak Spanish, Mayan dialects or more obscure languages that few people may be able to translate.

RELATED: Non-English speaking students weigh back-to-school learning options

That's where people like Sarcos come in, to make sure families and teachers can work together so students succeed.

She remembers one encounter where a Spanish-speaking student's parents and teacher were frustrated trying to communicate with each other.

Sarcos was able to sit down with them all and translate.

"When the teacher understood the difficulties that the parent was having and let her know that she was taking care of her child, their relationship changed completely," she said.

"As our students come to Knox County from different districts and from different countries, we do feel it is extremely important to support them academically and personally," said Inna Slisher.

Slisher is the English Language Learners Supervisor and an immigrant herself from Russia.

"Just a couple of days ago I had a Russian family who came in and enrolled seven students," she said. "It was actually very rewarding to come out and represent my culture and help enroll this family."

The Welcome Center opened in 2017 and focuses on the four main languages students and families speak across the district which are Spanish, Swahili, Arabic and Kirundi.

Staff will often put out newsletters and videos in those languages regarding vaccine updates, places where families can find resources and more.

RELATED: KCS COVID-19 Update: 375 active cases reported

Slisher said they're growing and working to accommodate all 119 languages and then some.

"Like Sabrina said, she speaks more than one language. I speak more than one language. We do support the four main in terms of translations and making phone calls and supporting families that way," said Slisher.

The Welcome Center serves as a space where families can feel safe, get much-needed resources and make sure their students are cared for while they're in school.

"We're able to sit down with each family and go through the registration process to ensure all their questions are answered," said Slisher.

She does this work in the shadow of a photo hanging on the wall, taken on the day she got her American citizenship. It's something she said is precious, while making sure the heritage of all who come through those doors is honored.

"I want to make sure that your language and your culture is represented," she said.