Registering and Tracking Students From Non-English Backgrounds


March 19, 2014


Students walking in a school hallway

Northwest schools are serving an increasingly diverse population. Some districts, such as those found in the South Seattle area, may have as many as 90 different languages spoken among students.

Consequently, school staff faces the challenge of accurately entering data for students whose names may not fit neatly into categories designed for English-language populations. Information on individuals may be recorded differently in multiple databases, making it difficult to track students over time, match files across data sets, and ensure that students receive services they’re entitled to under federal programs.

As part of our REL Northwest work addressing this issue, we identified the eight most common languages in seven Seattle-area school districts. We then collaborated with linguistic experts to prepare reference sheets that assist school personnel in registering students from these backgrounds. The one-page guides highlight Spanish, Vietnamese, Cantonese, Punjabi, Russian, Somali, Tagalog, and Ukrainian naming conventions.

The guides also include tips on culturally appropriate ways to interact with families of these students, such as forms of address. For example, Cantonese names differ from English in that family (or last) names are typically spoken and written first, followed by the given (or first) names. Somali parents should be addressed by their first name or two first names, and school staff should only shake hands with a person of a different gender if he or she initiates the gesture.

Education Northwest researchers presented the reference sheets to school staff at a webinar and workshop, and we are continuing to refine the guides through user testing before disseminating them more widely.

After attending the workshop, a school front office worker commented, “When a student comes from a foreign country they should be greeted properly. Many times in our district kids are not called by their proper name. These guides will help a lot.” Another staff member noted that she will use the reference sheets since “it’s rare that we have translators in the office [and] I struggle with issues like this.” An administrator stated, “When our office manager does intake, I want her to use these so that she accurately enters the names. It would be really helpful for intake staff to understand [cultural differences], and for those of us who work with families to be able to address them directly.”

Visit the REL Northwest website to learn more about how to improve the way students and their families from diverse backgrounds are welcomed and tracked throughout their school careers.