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Advocacy Groups Push for Better Translation Services

In reporting on language-access issues this week, I found that some education advocacy groups have been persistent in pushing school districts to communicate effectively with immigrant parents who speak little or no English. Among them are Advocates For Children of New York; Californians Together in Long Beach, Calif.; and the Somerville, Mass.-based Multicultural Education, Training, and Advocacy.

For years education law has said that school districts must communicate with parents in their native languages "to the extent practicable." In addition, the U.S. Department of Justice interprets the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as saying that school districts must notify parents with limited English skills of "school activities that are brought to the attention of other parents," which may involve written or oral interpretation of notices. I've written about school districts' obligations under federal law to provide translation/interpretation services for parents of English-language learners in an article just published by EdWeek.

Kleber J. Palma, the director of the translation and interpretation unit for New York City's schools, told me in explaining the history of that unit that Advocates for Children "has been involved since day one, in both the writing up of our internal bylaws and outreach and the feedback from the community."

In 2004, I reported how Palma was hired away from the Los Angeles Unified School District to set up a translation unit in New York City.

Arlen Benjamin-Gomez, a staff attorney in the immigrant students' rights project of Advocacy for Children, says that her organization has had campaigns to push the city's education department to bolster communications with limited-English-proficient parents. The city's school chancellor responded, she said, with a regulation in 2007 spelling out protocol for translation and interpretation, and an update in 2009, with additional mandates, such as that students couldn't be used as interpreters. Advocacy for Children published a report in 2007 pointing out gaps in how the district was carrying out the 2007 regulation.

She said the dissemination of translated communications from the central office to schools continues to be a problem, and though Palma says the department has a protocol for interpreters to be available for important meetings, such as those for parents to discuss individualized education plans, Benjamin-Gomez says her group hears from parents that interpreters aren't always present at the meetings. "They are sometimes signing off on documents they don't understand," she said.

Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, Roger Rice, the executive director of the Multicultural Education, Training, and Advocacy, says that school districts' determinations of what level of translation or interpretation meets the federal obligation to communicate "to the extent practicable," is a "murky" area. He said that if he got a call from a parent saying the parent was going into an IEP meeting and didn't have an interpreter, he would call the lawyer for the school district involved and inform him or her of the federal obligation to provide an interpreter. And if that didn't happen, he'd seek relief with either the U.S. Departments of Justice or Education.

But he said it's harder to know if some other situations comply with federal law or not, such as whether it's appropriate for a school he visited recently in Boston to use students to interpret a guidance counselor's advice for post-high school planning for ELLs.

Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, the executive director for Californians Together, said she also keeps an eye on how effectively schools are communicating with immigrant parents. She noted that the California Department of Education published guidelines to language-access in 2006.

She suspects that some school districts may be cutting back on the comprehensiveness of translation and interpretation services because the state has reduced monitoring of schools due to its budget crisis. Also, she said, providing such services is likely "slipping" because it's costly for schools, many of which have reduced their budgets.

For more on school districts' obligations under federal law to provide language access, see a toolkit published this week by Bridging Refugee Youth and Children's Services. That's an initiative by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that receives funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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