English-Language Learners

ELLs Taught Rights Under D.C. Language-Access Act

By Mary Ann Zehr — March 10, 2011 4 min read
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Though I lived in the District of Columbia from 1998 to 2009, I just learned for the first time that the D.C. Council passed a law in 2004 with mandates for local government agencies to provide immigrants with translation and interpretation services.

The Washington-based D.C. Language Access Coalition, which advocates for that law to be enforced, led a daylong workshop on Saturday for about 30 English-language learners and immigrant students. Most of the students were immigrants from Ethiopia or Central American countries, but the group included students from China and the Philippines and a couple of youths from Cameroon.

The youths hailed from at least five D.C. charter or traditional public schools. In addition to coaching students on how to ask for translation or interpretation for themselves or their parents, the workshop leaders gave them the chance to share problems they have in navigating U.S. schools and brainstorm how to get them solved.

Lidya Abune, 17, for example, who moved to the United States from Ethiopia half a year ago, shared that she’s frustrated that she doesn’t have a way to quickly make up credits in core classes because her school doesn’t offer evening classes for that purpose and she doesn’t meet criteria for students who are permitted to take summer school classes. She finished 11th grade in Ethiopia, but is officially a 9th grader at the district’s Coolidge High School because her schedule includes 9th grade English. “My age is going,” she said, noting she’s worried about getting prepared academically to be able to perform well on the SAT or ACT. “I need to do a lot of stuff.”

Lidya also told her peers that although she is getting A’s and taking Advanced Placement classes (she passed the district’s English-proficiency test, so she isn’t an ELL), she’s not eligible to join the honor society at her school because of her classification as a 9th grader, which doesn’t seem fair to her.

Holy Mbah, 18, from Cameroon, told the other students about how he ended up with an F on his transcript for a math class he never attended because he didn’t know it was officially on his schedule. Holy has been in the United States for about two years, but began attending Coolidge only this school year. He said his schedule must have been changed without his knowledge, and the F made him ineligible to join the honor society. Otherwise, he’s been getting A’s. He was an ELL when he first came to this country but was later redesignated as fluent in English. Holy said his school is now correcting the mistake so that the F is taken off of his transcript.

Others at the workshop complained that it’s a challenge to get the courses they want in school and the ear of busy guidance counselors, some of whom they feel don’t have the patience to converse with ELLs. They also joked that the guidance counselors often seem to be “at lunch,” when they stop by to talk with them.

Karina Hurtado-Ocampo, one of the coalition’s organizers for the meeting, told the students that because of the D.C. Language Act of 2004, local government agencies must translate government documents into six languages: Chinese, French, Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese, and Amharic, which is spoken in Ethiopia. She told them about cards they can carry that ask for translation in their home language, if it’s one of those six languages, or for the opportunity to use D.C.'s service to phone up an interpreter in practically any language.

Most of the students said that they haven’t noticed that their schools translate any documents into languages other than Spanish. (See my post recently about schools’ obligations under federal law to communicate with parents with limited English skills.)

The act requires that documents be translated into any of the six languages if a D.C. governmental agency serves or is likely to serve at least 500 people who speak one of the six languages, or if 3 percent or more of people served or likely to be served speak one of the six languages.

I communicated the complaints of these students to D.C. school district officials and gave them a day to respond, but I didn’t receive a comment from them.

Besides expressing frustrations, some of the youths said in personal conversations with me that they have effective English-as-a-second-language teachers and are proud that they have learned a lot of English in a short amount of time. And they weren’t a glum group. They laughed at some of the situations their families face, such as how parents who speak only Amharic pick up the phone and hear robo calls from D.C. schools with messages first in English and then in Spanish.

As for solutions, some students suggested that each school should have interpreters for the top commonly spoken languages at that school and that schools should provide after-school or summer programs for immigrants to make up credits.

One ELL student suggested that the youths engage in “non-aggressive protest” to urge school officials to pay more attention to the needs of ELLs. She said: “There was a large group that marched on the White House for the DREAM Act. We should do that for ESL students.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.