Report cards, parent-teacher conferences, handbooks, permission slips. If parents and guardians don’t speak the same languages as their child’s teachers and staff, those routine school communications get more complex.
But language shouldn’t become a barrier to families understanding nuances of their children’s education.
Guidelines from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights as well as the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice spell out what families should expect under federal civil rights and education laws: effective and competent communication in a language they understand.
Here are key things to know about what parents or guardians whose primary language is not English are entitled to regarding their child’s education.
School districts should proactively look for parents and guardians who need language assistance
School officials shouldn’t assume a parent or guardian is comfortable speaking, reading, writing or understanding English even if their student isn’t considered an English language learner.
A home language survey is one way a school could find parents with limited English proficiency. They would send the survey, translated in all languages that are common in the area, to all district parents and guardians.
For example, during enrollment each year, North Kansas City Schools asks what languages are spoken in the student’s home and whether parents or guardians need interpretation, said Lezlie Paden, the district English language learners coordinator. During the most recent school year, it identified more than 100 languages spoken at home.
Alert the school if officials haven’t identified the adult who needs resources in a language other than English.
Parents have the right to receive information in a language they understand
School officials should ensure all parents have access to important communication — such as enrollment information, report cards, student discipline policies, special education meetings, parent-teacher conferences, handbooks and permission slips — in the language they speak.
Some districts, including Kansas City Public Schools and NKC, have begun to use a program called TalkingPoints to send written messages. The program automatically translates two-party communication using the parent’s or guardian’s preferred language.
Language assistance should be free, effective and competent
Being bilingual does not automatically qualify someone to interpret conversations or translate documents. Interpreting or translating in a school setting requires knowledge of specialized terms and training on the role, ethics and confidentiality of interpreting.
Schools should provide a competent interpreter or translator rather than asking a student or an untrained staff member to facilitate the conversation.
Having an untrained interpreter, even one with a strong command of both languages, is “just not fair to families,” said Edgar Palacios, founder of Revolución Educativa, a local nonprofit organization that uses political engagement and advocacy around education issues to empower the Latinx community. “The communication gets lost both ways.”
Help is available for parents struggling to receive proper communication from their child’s school
First, parents should reach out to their child’s school to ask for what they need. That doesn’t have to be an intimidating experience, Palacios said, as most educators want the best for students. “I think that they will absolutely find the patience and the time to build relationships.”
Parents and guardians should also feel free to reach out to any school staff members they’re comfortable with or who they or their children trust to champion their rights, Palacios said.
Parents and guardians can also call Revolución Educativa for support in getting their children the best education possible, Palacios said. The organization runs a helpline for parents and guardians for support with their children’s education. He also recommended Jewish Vocational Service of Kansas City and the Kansas City Public Library’s Refugee and Immigrant Services & Empowerment (RISE) program as additional ways to find information and support for immigrant families.
If needed, parents and guardians can file a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
Schools should take initiative to improve their communication in various languages, even if they don’t receive complaints, and should be open to feedback from families, Paden said. “I also would hope that they (parents and guardians) feel safe and connected or welcome … that they can share whatever their concern is.”
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