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Losing Bilingual Support Staff Can Affect ELL Students, Parents

Bilingual secretaries at six predominately Hispanic schools in Detroit schools will lose their jobs this month, a move that could leave a number of Spanish-speaking parents in the lurch.

A group of parents told television station WJBK this week that "they will no longer be able to communicate with their children's school administrators because the bilingual secretaries they depend on are losing their jobs."

The layoffs come at a time when the U.S. Department of Education's office of English-language acquisition, and organizations such as the Education Commission on the States, Migration Policy Institute, and Center on American Progress, have urged educators to redouble their efforts to connect with English-language-learner parents. The organizations argue that communities looking to improve education for school-aged ELLs should also offer services and support for their parents.

The Detroit schools acknowledged the difficulties the decision could create for parents with limited-English proficiency. Executive Director of Communications Michelle Zdrowski provided a statement, requesting that it be used in full:

"Detroit Public Schools is committed to working with all of its parents and families to ensure their students get a high-quality education and their needs are met. While recent central office clerical position transitions set to occur on December 18 may cause the shifting of school-based clerical staff across the District, they will be done in accordance with the terms of the current collective bargaining agreement in place with the Detroit Association of Educational Office Employees (DAEOE). We appreciate and acknowledge that some parents and partners in our Southwest community are concerned about the transitions of a small number of clerical employees who are bilingual in Spanish. The District has advised groups of parents and partners of its process for schools and parents with limited English proficiency to request the services of certified translators to assist with their language needs. This process applies not only to our Spanish-speaking community, but also to those parents with limited English proficiency who speak other languages, including Arabic, Bengali, Romanian and Hmong (the other languages that have significant populations within the District). Impacted schools are also working to put into place a process to have available staff to communicate with non-English speaking parents until the certified translator is able to communicate directly with those parents. Additionally, once the position transition process is complete, there may be opportunities for transfers to occur within the school-based clerical ranks to address specific community needs throughout the District. We are working with DAEOE Union Leadership to develop a plan related to these potential transfers once the process is finalized. It should also be noted that the District's Translation Coordinator is certified to translate in Spanish and is available as needed for interpretation services."

Detroit has made efforts in recent years to better serve its ELL population, including opening a new high school, Escuela Preparatoria Academia de las Americas, in southwest Detroit with a dual-language immersion curriculum in English and Spanish.  The Detroit Free Press reports that the district also began an adult English-language-learner program for Spanish and Arabic speakers in the same immigrant-heavy neighborhood.

The moves foreshadowed high-level recommendations made in several major policy reports this school year.

In their study, "The Case for a Two-Generation Approach for Educating English Language Learners," the Center for American Progress Prioritize highlighted how the Oakland, Calif., schools prioritize family engagement at school to help parents become better advocates for their children

A report from the Migration Policy Institute's National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy cited low parent engagement—primarily because teachers are unable to communicate with ELL parents—as a form of structural discrimination that harms young ELLs.

The Education Commission on the States report encourages states and districts to provide materials in the native languages of students and parents and offer adult ELL community education classes to help bridge the language gap.

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