April 6, 2023

Gervais School District Welcomes Ukrainian Refugees with Pocketalk

Schools across the United States have to navigate the growing number of Multilingual Learner (MLL) students in their classrooms. For some schools, MLL students still remain a small subset of their student body. However, for the small school district in Gervais, Oregon, the MLL student population is growing at a much faster rate.


Gervais is a small city outside of Salem, with a population of around 2,595 people. Among the population are a variety of ethnicities, with a diverse array of languages spoken. A majority of the residents are hispanic or latino.

The student body at Gervais School District reflects this diversity. Of their 900 students district-wide, about 300 are MLL students, or one-third of the student body. The primary language spoken by the MLL students is Spanish, though there is also a refugee population that speaks a variety of languages. Up until this year, the school had ample Spanish-speaking staff to support student needs. Though, when the school heard they would be welcoming a number of Ukrainian refugees last fall, the district wanted to ensure that the students and their families felt safe and comfortable upon their arrival.

This is when Dr. Crieghton Helms, Director of Student Services and Federal Programs, first heard about Pocketalk. Shortly after, the district purchased 20 Pocketalk devices. The devices are primarily used for non-English and non-Spanish speaking students to carry around with them wherever they go. On top of that, devices are kept in nurses offices for emergencies and at the front desk to welcome families and new students.

“Students have the ability to not just access reading, writing, mathematics. They can now go up to a peer on the playground and make real connections with their classmates. They can feel more welcomed and comfortable with a simple device,” explains Helms.

Due to the success of Pocketalk with MLL students, the district is working on grant applications to order more. They hope additional devices can be given to the parents of new families that otherwise would not have the language support to properly become part of the community, especially refugee families. The school district also hopes to have Pocketalk devices in more classrooms and faculty offices to further support the needs of its students.

Overcoming language barriers is crucial for Gervais School District to provide equitable access to education for all of its students. Pocketalk has proven to be an effective and accessible solution for the district’s MLL students. Dr. Helms says it best, “You could give it to virtually anyone, and they will understand how to use it.”