Translation Efforts a Growing Priority for Urban Schools

By Mary Ann Zehr — October 08, 2004 6 min read
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The New York City school system is setting up, for the first time, a centralized office to routinely translate school information into eight different languages.

The nation’s largest school system is one of several urban districts that have recently upgraded their translation and interpretation services for students’ parents who speak little or no English.

Factors fueling the attention include a rising number of students with limited English proficiency, increased federal accountability requirements for serving such students, and advocacy on behalf of immigrants.

Adding translation and interpretation services is seen by educators as a way to overcome language barriers that can keep parents from contacting schools or asking questions that might help their children.

For years, the federal government and some states have required districts to provide school information “to the extent practicable” to immigrant parents in languages they understand. But districts have largely ignored those laws, according to immigrant advocates.

Now, proponents of such services say, the federal No Child Left Behind Act is raising awareness about the need for schools to ensure that parents who don’t speak English understand what’s going on with their children’s education.

“The difference with the No Child Left Behind Act is that it is a much higher-accountability, higher-stakes piece, and as a result, the components in it are being paid attention to,” said Laurie Olsen, a longtime advocate for English-language learners and the executive director of California Tomorrow, a research and technical-assistance organization in Oakland, Calif.

This school year, the Philadelphia public schools opened an office to translate district documents. The St. Louis school system set up formal translation services three years ago. Districts in Chicago, Fairfax County, Va., Los Angeles, San Diego, and Seattle have provided centralized translation services for years.

Accepting a Challenge

To create the new translation unit for the 1.1 million-student New York district, the city’s department of education hired the Los Angeles Unified School District’s director of translation services, Kleber J. Palma.

Hiring away Mr. Palma was a coup for New York.

The 750,000-student Los Angeles school system runs what many say is the most comprehensive school translation and interpretation service in the country. The district employs 79 full-time translators and interpreters and spends about $6.2 million a year for translation services.

By comparison, the Philadelphia school system, which has 190,000 students, is starting its new “office of language-access services and community outreach” with about $150,000 to hire outside vendors and pay bilingual school employees to translate district policies. The funds will also pay for interpreters for parent telephone hotlines and community meetings.

A second district office also translates documents for parents about instructional programs.

In the five years that Mr. Palma directed the Los Angeles translation unit, its full-time staff doubled. He said he accepted the New York job because he’s drawn to the challenge of setting up a translation center from scratch.

“Most monolingual and even bilingual people have trouble understanding the expertise and professionalism involved,” he said last week. While New York City’s education department has been translating some documents, “there was no consistency, control, or accountability,” he said.

Forty-three percent of the city’s public school children come from homes where the primary language is not English. Advocacy groups say the school system hasn’t done much to communicate with immigrant parents in their native languages, even in Spanish, which is the most commonly spoken language among the city’s immigrants.

Jill Chaifetz, the executive director of Advocates for Children of New York, said her Manhattan-based group and the New York Immigration Coalition have lobbied city school officials for five years to open a centralized translation office. She’s thrilled the district has finally responded.

Useful Information

Advocates for Children of New York and the New York Immigration Coalition conducted a survey this year of 915 local immigrant parents and 55 students from immigrant families. They reported last February that nearly half of immigrant parents had “never” or “rarely” received written information from a school or the school district in their native languages.

Twelve percent said they “always” received such translations.

“We see parents who sign documents they can’t read, who have to bring a relative or their kids to the parent-teacher conference to interpret,” said Ana Maria Archila, the executive director of the Latin American Integration Center, a community group in Queens.

Ms. Archila and Vladimir Epshteyn, the president of the Metropolitan Russian American Parents Association, question whether the school system’s new translation unit will translate the kind of information that immigrant parents find most relevant.

“The most useful is the information not coming from the [local department of education], but what is coming from the bottom, from the school,” Mr. Epshteyn said.

Mr. Palma, who anticipates an annual budget of at least $2 million, said that initially his staff will translate districtwide documents.

He hopes to hire either one or two translators for each of the eight languages that have been established as the school system’s languages of translation: Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Bengali, Haitian Creole, Korean, Urdu, and Arabic. Mr. Palma also has immediate plans to provide interpreters for district school board meetings and a limited number of school-level meetings.

Translation coordinators for other urban districts say the demand for their services is high, but add that they struggle to get the money that they need.

Mr. Palma, whose salary is $120,000, said he’d be able to offer respectable salaries to the unit’s in-house translators.

The five in-house translators in the 36,200-student St. Louis district, who also serve as parent liaisons, earn $20,000 a year. Nahed A. Chapman, who established the centralized translation services there, is urging district officials to raise the salaries of her staff members, who all have college degrees.

In the 431,000-student Chicago schools, budget cuts have meant that the translation and interpretation staff was trimmed from five to four from last school year to this one, said Beata E. Marek, the coordinator of translation and evaluation for that district. Her staff members, who are paid the equivalent of teachers’ salaries, often work more than eight-hour days, she said.

While experts on immigrant families speak well of districts’ efforts to establish translation services, they urge schools to use a variety of strategies to reach out to immigrant parents.

“I would encourage school districts to think beyond translation to providing English-language training to parents,” said Donald J. Hernandez, a professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Albany. “In the short run, the strategy of schools might be translation and interpretation, but a longer-run strategy is to facilitate children and parents to learn the English language.”

Coverage of cultural understanding and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.


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