GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (GRPS) — Grand Rapids Public Schools is seeking feedback from families as the district pilots a new translation tool on videos published by the school system.

Recently the district began testing translation software created by a company called HeyGen. The software is able to take videos spoken in one language and translate them to another.

Along with maintaining in-person translation and interpretation services, the district is piloting the Spanish version of the tool because 28% of the district’s scholars have Spanish selected as their preferred language for communications from GRPS.

“The idea is that this is a tool that might help families connect in ways that they haven’t before — that it might help them see and hear our leaders in a way that reduces the language barrier between them,” GRPS Executive Director of Communications Leon Hendrix said. “This is brand new technology and we’re curious as to whether our families will find it beneficial.”

The district first began testing the technology and seeking feedback in December. Tuesday GRPS broadened the effort and published an article about the software to the community and invited media to observe how the technology worked.

Thursday the district contacted families that indicated Spanish as their preferred language to ask them for feedback about the use of the tool.

The feedback on the technology has been mixed. So far, the responses on surveys completed by families have been overwhelmingly supportive of the technology, with nearly 90% stating that they would like the district to continue using the program. The district will share the results after the survey is complete. The district has also heard feedback from activists and some organizations that offer translation services who are concerned that the tool might displace people who provide interpretation.

“This is a tool that we are piloting as an additional option for those who watch our videos. It cannot and will not replace the human interaction with our families that our incredible team of interpreters help us with every day,” Hendrix said. “We are always looking for ways to better serve our diverse population in ways that promote engagement. We know that when our families are informed about their schools and engaged with our teachers and staff our children benefit from a stronger education and a brighter future.”

“We want all of our families to have the information they need and we know that in the Information Age that calls for a multi-platform approach. For some families that means receiving written communication, for others it might mean getting a robocall, and for another group it might mean seeing videos or social media posts,” Hendrix continued. “Our families want and expect us to meet them where they are to provide the information they need about our schools.”

Another conversation illuminated by the discussion centers around representation and the need for more members of the Latinx community within GRPS leadership ranks.

“I couldn’t agree more,” Grand Rapids Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Leadriane Roby said. “That is why we have made creating a more diverse and inclusive workforce one of our strategic themes. Our talent acquisition team is growing and this is among its key objectives. We’ve heard this concern loud and clear and I stand committed to making improvements in this part of our work.”

Currently, those identifying as Hispanic make up approximately 9% of the GRPS staff. A bilingual communications coordinator on the district’s external affairs team aids in building connections with the Latinx community and ensuring the district’s messages are accessible.

The discussion about the technology makes it clear that its use must be deliberate and careful.

“What I hear from some of the critical feedback is that we moved too quickly in advancing our testing of this technology. AI is new, and like all new technology it’s controversial. In light of this feedback we’ll be slowing down and extending the pilot phase of this software to garner more feedback from our community. We are so grateful to have great community partners who are willing to share honest feedback,” Hendrix said. “This is how we learn, grow, and ensure we’re providing the best for the children in this community.”

Guardrails in piloting the use of AI in district communications:

  1. Any video translated or created using AI must say so on screen at all times during its use.
  2. Any video translated or created using AI must be reviewed by someone fluent in the language used and edited for clarity and accuracy.