Parents Still Suffer Limited Access to Language Services

Gulshan Chowdhury, Bangladeshi parent with Sapna NYC, says she did not know her son’s school offered translation and language services. (Photo by Aaron Montes for Voices of NY)

Gulshan Chowdhury, a Bangladeshi parent with Sapna NYC, says she did not know her son’s school offered translation and language services. (Photo by Aaron J. Montes for Voices of NY)

Access to translation services for parents of students in the city’s public schools has improved in recent years, but still falls short, a new report issued by the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC) on June 16 reveals.

At a press conference, representatives from a coalition of grassroots community organizations presented their findings, which showed large gaps in access to translation and interpretation services persist for non-English speaking parents of NYC students. The survey compiled responses from 200 parents across the city.

According to the report, 175 parents indicated that they did not feel comfortable speaking English at their child’s school. The report says that half of the parents are missing critical information because it is not translated or because they do not have an interpreter during meetings.

The report also stated that parents are relying on children to interpret on a large scale despite the Department of Education’s own regulations against the practice. DOE regulations state that interpretation services should at least be available in the top nine languages spoken in the city – Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, French, Haitian Creole, Korean, Russian, Spanish and Urdu.

Parents of children who have special needs may find themselves in a precarious spot since they cannot completely rely on their children to inform them about what’s happening in school.

Gulshan Chowdhury, whose son has autism, struggled because of inadequate translation and interpretation services. Chowdhury, a member of the organization Sapna NYC, whose native language is Bengali, said her son had been mistakenly placed in a special education classroom but she couldn’t determine what the problem was because all school documents were in English. When Chowdhury went back to Bangladesh for a short time and spoke with teachers there, she learned that there were programs and resources better suited to her son in the U.S.

“I had no way of knowing that the school my son was enrolled in was inappropriate for his needs,” Chowdhury said. “I didn’t even know I had a right to translation services.”

Even after finding out about the resources available to her, Chowdhury said she still has difficulty getting school documents translated and communicating with teachers.

“Think of the terrible position that puts the child, the parents and the teacher in,” Kim Sykes, senior manager of education advocacy at NYIC said. “It’s inappropriate, it’s ineffective and it’s against the DOE’s regulations.”

Sykes said that the school is supposed to make a plan that provides quality translation and interpretation to parents who need it. She said that parents who speak another language are trapped.

In an email statement, Yuridia Peña, the deputy press secretary at the DOE, wrote:

“As a former English Language Learner, Chancellor Fariña has prioritized the expansion of access to all services in native languages. Additional funding has been allocated over the next two years to support over the phone language services for parents in over 200 languages and the Translation and Interpretation Unit continues to serve the language needs of thousands of public school families in their native languages. Each Borough Field Support Center opening in July will also be staffed with English Language Learner specialists to best serve families across the City, new ESL teacher positions will be created, and for the first time the Citywide Council for English Language Learners is fully seated. We look forward to continued work with the New York Immigration Coalition‎ to increase language access for families and are committed to ensuring that every school has a strong partnership with parents – regardless of their native language or the neighborhood they live in.”

The NYIC report states that “there are just two people in charge of supporting and monitoring 1,700 New York City schools on translation and interpretation.”

The NYIC recommends that the DOE designate a “language access coordinator” in each superintendent office, link schools directly with over-the-phone interpreters and offer expanded service hours. The coalition also recommends the DOE expand the translation and interpretation capacity to provide translated documents for schools.

The NYIC’s report compares data with that from a 2007 report entitled “School Year Filled With Missed Communication,” that the advocacy group also coordinated and wrote along with other ethnic community groups.

The 2015 report shows modest improvement compared to the 2007 report in the categories “how often parents received interpretation at school meetings” and “how often parents received translated documents.”

According to the report, this year, 50 percent of parents said they “never or sometimes” received interpretation at school meetings, an improvement from 64 percent in 2007.

The report also says that 51 percent of parents “never or sometimes” received translated documents, a small improvement from 54 percent in 2007.

In some cases, however, the data show worsening circumstances for non-English speaking parents. For instance, while in 2007, 45 percent of parents found it “very difficult or somewhat difficult” to communicate with teachers and administrators at their child’s school, that percentage climbed to 61 percent in 2015.

Zeinab Khalil, the lead organizer of the Arab American Association of New York, said that even in schools in Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge area, which is densely populated with Arabic-speaking students, parents are still struggling to know what their children are experiencing at school.

Khalil said that many parents continue to be unaware of services that are available to them, and that they are often uncomfortable attending parent-teacher conferences because they require interpreters and they are reluctant to bring their children with them to interpret.

“That’s not supposed to be the case, it’s your right to have a neutral translator,” she said. “Someone you don’t know, and not put the burden on a 12-year-old.”

 Rahimon Nasa and Aaron J. Montes are Knight-CUNY Journalism Summer Fellows

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