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interpreting for school districts
Abdullahi Ibrahim, right, helps Zeynab Warsame fill out an evaluation form after a parent conference session in Syracuse City School District in New York. Ibrahim is a nationality worker for the district who helps interpret into and out of Somali. Credit: Tara García Mathewson

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — When Dadhi Dahal first came to the United States in early 2009, the Bhutanese population in Syracuse, New York was quite small — the first refugees from Bhutan, fleeing ethnic cleansing policies in their home country, arrived in 2008, after they had spent years in refugee camps in Nepal.

Fast forward eight years. The Bhutanese population has grown into a flourishing, tightly knit group of about 3,000 people. They are part of a substantial refugee population from South Asia, Africa and the Middle East that has transformed the city and its schools.  Students in the Syracuse City School District speak more than 70 different languages and four of the most common among them are Nepali, Karen, Somali, and Arabic.

In 2010, to better serve this population, the Syracuse City school District created a new position — nationality workers — to serve as a bridge between new immigrant communities and the schools. Dahal is one of them, and a big part of his job is interpretation. He helps immigrant parents communicate with English-speaking teachers and district officials and ensures that parents have an opportunity to be heard.

The district, one of the poorest in the country, works hard to maintain open channels of communication with parents — because it’s important to student success, and because it’s the law.

A failure to communicate effectively with immigrant parents is a violation of their civil rights, considered discrimination based on national origin, which is prohibited by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Without language services, non-English-speaking parents are considered to be blocked from equal access to school information and resources.

“Providing an interpreter is a fundamental responsibility of a district when they have children or parents who do not speak English.”

As refugees spread out across the U.S., settling in the Southeast, Midwest, and many rural areas that, before, were fairly insulated from large immigrant populations, schools are being forced to adapt to a new reality.

Syracuse is one of the more proactive districts when it comes to providing language access. While it struggles, at times, to meet its obligations, districts in other cities and states have fared worse. Dozens have been investigated by the Office of Civil Rights or the Department of Justice in recent years following complaints that they did not provide interpreters or translated materials to parents who needed them. These schools are in Yuma, Arizona; New Orleans, Louisiana; Richmond, Virginia; Detroit, Michigan; Modesto, California; and Seattle, Washington, among others.

“Providing an interpreter is a fundamental responsibility of a district when they have children or parents who do not speak English,” said Roger Rosenthal, executive director of the Migrant Legal Action Program in Washington, D.C.

Rosenthal has been advocating on behalf of immigrant families for more than 30 years, and he has been glad to see the Obama administration turn up the pressure on districts that don’t meet their obligations to them.

The legal rationale for language access requirements has existed for decades, but the Obama administration has been more aggressive than others in holding schools accountable. While the Civil Rights Act doesn’t specifically require schools to offer interpretation and translation services to parents — or any special supports for their non-English-speaking children – it bars discrimination based on national origin in any program or activity receiving federal dollars. The courts have consistently relied on this rationale to require schools to provide these services, and a “Dear Colleague” letter from the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights and the Department of Justice in 2015 went into explicit detail about what schools have to do to communicate with immigrant parents.

interpreting for school districts
Katie Rossi teaches kindergartners vocabulary at Franklin Elementary School in Syracuse, N.Y. where 70 percent of kindergartners qualify for language services because they do not speak English fluently. Credit: Tara García Mathewson

The letter says that schools must have a process in place to identify parents who need language assistance and assign the resources to provide it. They must ensure interpreters and translators are trained in their roles and understand the ethics and confidentiality requirements involved. And their services must be offered for free by competent staff members or contracted individuals.

Related: English one day, Español the next: Dual-language learning expands with a South Bronx school as a model

At a recent daylong event for parents in Syracuse, two English-speaking teacher-facilitators introduced immigrant parents to the intricacies of U.S. schools, including the practice of holding parent-teacher conferences.

“Teachers like this,” said Kristina Crehan, one of the facilitators. “They want to know more about the student and learn from you.”

After Crehan said a sentence or two, a Karenni interpreter repeated what she said to a cluster of five parents from Myanmar and a Somali interpreter repeated the same to his group of eight. The Somali interpreter, Abdullahi Ibrahim, is another nationality worker, while Sah Poe Wah is a contract interpreter Syracuse found through Interfaith Works of Central New York.

This year the district’s interpreters have been busier than ever, helping schools meet new parent meeting requirements handed down from the state. Schools are now required to hold annual meetings with parents of English language learners to discuss their children’s language progress and their academic achievement more generally. It is not enough to get these immigrant parents to school events; teachers need to have one-on-one meetings that are documented and tracked in each student’s file.

interpreting for school districts
Sah Poe Wah, right, interprets for Karen-speaking parents at a conference session organized by Syracuse City School District in New York. Credit: Tara García Mathewson

Jacqueline LeRoy, who is responsible for coordinating the district’s language access services, said meeting the new requirement has been a challenge.

“When you think about the numbers of students, and we have this huge language barrier, and there are these cultural differences,” LeRoy said. “Some parents aren’t familiar with a parent-teacher conference. … It’s a new type of thinking about the educational system.”

Related: In a conservative corner of Arkansas, schools welcome immigrants

Sometimes cultural differences keep parents from understanding that schools want to hear from them. But there are other times when parents who want to be their children’s advocates — or simply be well-informed about their children’s progress — are kept from doing so because of language barriers.

“I feel like I can’t get involved like I want to to help my daughter. It’s very difficult. Sometimes it wears me out because I feel powerless.”

Rita Pin Ahrens is the director of education policy at the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center in Washington, D.C. The organization has supported partner groups that have filed complaints with the Office of Civil Rights when schools and districts do not provide the language access services they should.

During the 2014-15 fiscal year, the Office of Civil Rights received 82 complaints alleging discrimination against English language learners or their parents. And national experts believe compliance problems are far more widespread.

“It’s very challenging for immigrants, and refugees especially, because a lot of them just don’t understand the process for how you would file complaints, or that you even have a right to file complaints,” Ahrens said. These parents do not understand their rights or the responsibilities of school districts. And even worse, school and district administrators often do not, themselves, understand their legal obligations to parents who don’t speak English.

“There’s that lack of clarity all around,” Ahrens said.

Last year’s “Dear Colleague” letter may help clear things up for many schools, but understanding is only the first step in building a functional infrastructure to adequately serve immigrant parents.

In New York City, the country’s biggest school district, more than 90 languages are represented across more than 1,800 public schools. And immigrant parents who speak even the most common languages argue they can’t get the services they’re entitled to.

Related: Say it in any language you want – Latinos need a voice in the U.S. education debate

interpreting for school districts
Seventy percent of Franklin Elementary School’s kindergarten class qualifies for language services because they do not speak English fluently. More than 70 languages are represented across the district. Credit: Tara García Mathewson

Edith Rodriguez is such a parent. She moved to the United States from Mexico about 10 years ago and now lives in Queens. She has a 10-year-old daughter named Leilany who has been receiving services for her special needs since she was an infant. Leilany’s special education classification by the New York City Department of Education is that she is intellectually disabled. She receives physical therapy, speech therapy and occupational therapy, among other supports. Schools are required to create individualized education programs (IEPs) for all students with disabilities and hold annual meetings with parents to go over their child’s plans.

Rodriguez is among the parents named in a 2012 complaint against the New York City Department of Education alleging systemic denial of language services to parents of children with special needs who do not speak English fluently.

“In addition to explicit provisions regarding language access, every major law that impacts the education of children with disabilities foregrounds the primary role of the parent in developing and implementing his or her child’s education plan,” the complaint reads. “There is an inextricable link between the ability to participate and the ability to communicate; without language services, parent rights involving consent and due process are rendered meaningless.”

On top of state and federal regulations, New York City has its own strong protections for language access. But interpreters provided at Rodriguez’s meetings allegedly violated basic language access requirements outlined in court cases and federal guidance.

In a recent interview in Spanish, Rodriguez said bilingual school personnel have been pulled into meetings to interpret for her, but she said they did not know how to explain specialized terms relating to special education services. She also has had confidentiality concerns with teachers being asked to participate in highly personal conversations about her daughter.

When it comes to the actual interpretation, Rodriguez said her interpreters have refused to repeat her questions in English to the whole group, and she says she has received summarized statements by other meeting participants instead of word-for-word interpretation.

“I feel like I can’t get involved like I want to to help my daughter,” Rodriguez said. “It’s very difficult. Sometimes it wears me out because I feel powerless.”

interpreting for school districts
Seventy percent of Franklin Elementary School’s kindergarten class qualifies for language services because they do not speak English fluently. More than 70 languages are represented across the district. Credit: Tara García Mathewson

The 2012 complaint is still unresolved, and Rodriguez says she has begun to have the same problems advocating for her five-year-old son, who entered kindergarten this year and receives speech therapy.

While Kleber Palma, director of the New York City Department of Education’s translation and interpretation unit, cannot comment on the pending investigation, he said the district is working to improve its language access infrastructure.

Schools now have direct access to over-the-phone interpreters, allowing them, for the first time, to use the service outside of regular business hours. Principals were instructed to designate a language access coordinator to make sure their schools comply with city, state, and federal policies. And a language access complaint line launched to give parents an opportunity to file their grievances.

The New York City Department of Education is also hiring nine full-time language access support coordinators whose only responsibilities will be to make sure language access issues are addressed at the school level, according to Palma. And in the fall, the Department of Education plans to kick off an awareness campaign to help parents understand their rights and learn how to access services.

“The intent is that our infrastructure within the Department of Education is in place and that everybody is aware of what the responsibility is,” Palma said.

Abja Midha is a project director with Advocates for Children of New York, one of two organizations that filed the complaint against the New York City Department of Education. Midha says there is still a disconnect between policy and practice. Few parents know about the language access complaint line, and even some who file complaints do not have their problems resolved. And, Midha says, staff at many schools still do not know the coordinators exist as a resource to help manage language assistance.

“It really does deny the parent the ability to exercise their right to participate in their child’s education,” Midha said.

Research shows students lose when parent engagement is low, and that’s bad for schools. What’s more, districts risk losing all federal funding for failing to comply with the Civil Rights Act. But this has never happened. Instead, districts under investigation have all agreed to update their practices to meet federal expectations.

Rosenthal, of the Migrant Legal Action Program in D.C., says failing to provide interpretation services is as much a civil rights violation as discrimination based on race. But enforcement comes and goes with political will.

After President Clinton left office, the George W. Bush administration took down a variety of language access resources from the Office of Civil Rights website. In the past seven years, Obama’s team has swung the pendulum back in the other direction. Now, with a contentious presidential campaign under way, it is an open question whether language access will be taken seriously at a time when the nation’s schools are serving a growing population of English language learners and their parents.

But at Franklin Elementary School in Syracuse, educators don’t see a choice. Seventy percent of kindergartners qualify for language services because they don’t speak English fluently. In recent years a normal percentage for the school has been closer to 28, according to Principal Katrina Allen.

“We’ve never had an incoming class with a population that large,” Allen said. And that number doesn’t include the children who speak English even though their parents don’t.

She plans to hire more teachers who are certified to teach speakers of other languages, but she expects it to take at least a couple years to find enough with the proper qualifications. In the meantime, she’ll rely on the district’s supports – including nationality workers — to reach their parents.

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about immigration.

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