Burien Mayor Matta determined to bridge language gap for students, parents

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Burien Mayor Jimmy Matta, attending Thursday’s community safety meeting at Highline High School, noted that 41% of Highline students are Hispanic and called for a phone tree to reach out to families of those students.

Story & Photo by Aaron Wells

Burien Mayor Jimmy Matta, attending the second of four Highline Public Schools’ Community Safety meetings this past Thursday (April 19), announced his intention to reach out to non-English speaking parents who experience a disconnect between themselves, school administrators, and at-risk youth.

This disconnect, Matta says, means non-English speaking parents are otherwise out of the loop, making it difficult to share their concerns about attendance and academics. School resources designed to support at-risk students are difficult for such parents to connect with.

“The reality is that it’s young Latinos who are involved in gangs, it’s young Latinos who are being killed,” Matta says, voicing his frustration with the difficulties involved in communicating with the 44% of Hispanic students and their families who are the largest demographic enrolled in Highline High School.

The next largest group, according to 2016 data from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, are white students comprising 23.4%, followed by 15.1% Asian, 6.8% Black/African American, 5.1% two or more races, 4.4% Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and 1.2% American Indian/Alaskan Native.

Matta illustrated the need to connect with parents and their families, recalling a recent conversation at the funeral for one of two young girls tragically murdered on March 28th in which the brother of a Highline student approached him, voicing concerns about involvement in drugs and gangs.

The Mayor’s outreach efforts to overcome the language barrier include a phone tree to contact non-English speaking parents, inviting them to ongoing meetings with himself and school officials to hear and address such concerns in the parents’ native language.

Describing one recent coffee event he attended with parents and school administrators, Matta recalled the Hispanic mother of a struggling Highline student who didn’t speak English and was largely unable to connect with English-speaking parents experiencing similar challenges.

In addition to connecting with the Hispanic community, Matta is also working with Vietnamese and other community members to arrange similar meetings, engaging parents using their native languages.

The Mayor is not alone in his efforts. Rob Halpin, Founder of Burien Localists, is developing a Barrier Breakers project, bringing together English and Spanish speakers through social events with the goal of exchanging culture and building community relationships.

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