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How School Districts Are Grappling With Translation Services For Increasingly Diverse Populations

Virginia Alvino Young
90.5 WESA
Darling Garcia Saldana is the translation and interpretation manager for Pittsburgh Public Schools

This is one of two parts of our hour-long special, airing at 9 a.m. on Friday, March 1, looking at translation services in western Pennsylvania school districts. The other part is available here

Many school districts throughout Allegheny County are becoming increasingly diverse. Some populations, like Somali Bantu, are well established in the region. While families from Mexico and Central America represent fast growing groups.

All schools are federally required to provide translation and interpretation services for families, which is becoming more challenging given the linguistic diversity, and strain on school resources.

In Pittsburgh Public Schools, nearly 50 different languages and dialects are spoken, which accounts for thousands of students and families.

Darling Garcia Saldana is the translation and interpretation manager for the district. She’s tasked with receiving and coordinating thousands of requests that come from parents, teachers, and schools -- all within a tight budget. “Not having the resources should not be an excuse,” Saldana said. “We don’t have the resources? Let’s become creative.”

But sometimes school districts aren’t able to fully meet that needs of families.

As a result of a lawsuit brought by a local family, Pittsburgh Public Schools convened a working group to address the district’s policies around communicating with parents who are not English-proficient. A draft set of recommendations was presented to the school board in September. They include things like more training for parents and staff, greater community collaborations, and more IT capacity. But district leaders still need to implement them.

“I think we definitely have some areas of strength, but also some areas of opportunity that we're looking at now,” said Jonathan Covel, director of English as a second language for PPS. “I think one of the areas of strength that we've really refined is just a general awareness of the need for translation and interpretation.” He said in the future, he hopes the district will optimize existing resources, and add more. “We're meeting with, certainly, schools and school principals and just having conversations about … what are critical documents and critical things that need to be translated and interpreted and how can we use that as a foundational rock and then build our house from there.”

Credit Virginia Alvino Young / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
To track the language and locations of hundreds of parent-teacher conferences across the district, Darling Garcia Saldana writes out the appointments by hand.

What translation and interpretation services do Pittsburgh Public Schools provide?

Darling Garcia Saldana’s position has only existed for a few years. She works in a small office on the first floor of the main district administrative building in Oakland. She said the district is able to utilize a variety of resources to translate documents and verbally interpret information for families.

  • Robocalls – increasingly used for mass communication

These relate messages like two-hour school delays. They go out in English and the other top 6 languages spoken in the district.

  • TransPerfect Phone Service – usually for emergency use

It translates many different languages in real time, but Saldana said families typically don’t prefer this service over in-person interpretation.

  • Freelance translators – mainly used for in-person meetings

These individuals speak a variety of languages, and can be utilized for short document translation, and verbal interpretation at in-person meetings.

  • Contracted company – a piloted program used for document translation

A few months ago, the district launched the pilot, which manages translation for all documents over five pages, including individual education plans for special education students, which can range from 30 to 90 pages. Saldana says turnaround time for short documents has gone from 3 - 4 weeks, to 3 - 4 days.

  • Multilingual Classroom Assistants
Credit Virginia Alvino Young / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Amina Muya is a multilingual classroom assistants based at Arsenal Middle School.

There are 13 classroom assistants funded by the district and assigned to schools. An additional three schools have chosen to hire their own assistants. They help teachers with things like behavioral issues, and also serve as community liaisons. While they used to do more translating, they now only do short documents like school fliers. They’re largely used for communicating with families and interpreting at meetings.

“They go so above and beyond. I don’t know what we would do without them,” said ESL Director Jonathan Covel.

Receiving and Coordinating Requests

  • Nine Line – voicemail services to direct parent requests
  • Online form – schools and teachers submit request with language and deadline

Volume of Requests

Saldana said she has received well over 2,000 requests for services since the school year began in August 2018. That includes everything from single page school fliers and progress reports, to IEPs, robocalls, and parent-teacher meetings.

Persistent Challenges

  • Growing linguistic diversity

Some of the languages spoken in the district are difficult to find translators for. In Pittsburgh, there are families who speak Ixil, a Mayan dialect from Guatemala. “It’s impossible to cover everybody. This is a work in progress and it will take years for us to really nail it down and say you know what, now it’s perfect,” said Saldana.

  • Contacting families

Saldana said sometimes it is hard to contact families who do not keep their telephone numbers up to date. Saldana believes that across the board, communication is a shared responsibility. “And I’m telling parents, this is not only the district, you also need to do your part,” she said.

  • Using the online form

Saldana says some educators complain about not having direct access to translators, but Saldana said she tells them that she needs to track need, in order to try to get more resources in the future.
Going Forward

Classroom assistant Amina Muya said she has seen big changes in the district since she was a student. Her brothers did most of the translating for her parents, which is not a best practice, and the district is working to prevent these days. When Muya was a student, there were only a few multilingual assistants in schools across the district.

“Now it helps a lot of the families feel like they have somebody who can speak their language, they can open up, they can share concerns with their teachers,” Muya said. She speaks Somali, Swahili, Kizigua, and Muuy Muuy.

She said she urges everyone in the district not to become complacent when it comes to translation services.

“There’s always room for improvement,” said Muya. “And that’s where a lot of times people think like we have come a long way if we’re here we’ll finish up. They just start laying back a little bit, but there’s no time for that now.”

What barriers do immigrant and refugee families face when staying informed and engaged with schools?

“I actually think that the barrier is not as much on language as it is on navigating what the education looks like systemically and culturally,” said Jenna Baron of ARYSE, an organization that advocates for immigrant and refugee youth. “So when I think about what I've noticed in terms of parents and families being able to navigate the system, the thing that pops to my head is, what is the difference between their neighborhood school and their ESL hub? And the magnet options? How do all of these schools and systems interact within the education system and navigating what is the best option for my children?” She said communicating cultural aspects of the district, like schools’ reputations, are where many of the conversations are focused.

Does it matter who’s doing the translating?

“Interpreters are often not only language interpreters they're also cultural interpreters, able to understand why a young person or a parent may be responding in a certain way,” said Baron. She said some education concepts may be totally new to them, and additional context is valuable in the interpretation process. “When you have an interpreter who does have a shared background with folks … they understand each other's context.”

PPS’ Jonathan Covel said he would like to see the district’s capacity for translation and interpretation grow, including more outside resources, and more multilingual classroom assistants. “It's also like a philosophy about interpretation is that, are we directly conveying information without bias without coaching or steering the family?”

How do translation services relate to the broader welcoming environment of a school?

Baron said she would like to see a “district-wide commitment to creating really celebratory, empowering, warm spaces for immigrant and refugee youth, because what I worry most about is the social experience that young people have integrating into the public-school system.”

“Particularly for kids who have had limited formal education before coming to the U.S., [the] environment is just so intimidating,” Baron said.

“Conversations about race occur frequently in the district,” said Covel. “We all go through training about common language around race that we as educators and the kids use … In terms of language and culture all voices need to continue to be included, and as we're continuing to see more students with limited formal education, how are we not only accounting for them but also celebrating them? Celebrating their successes, sharing their culture, sharing their language, sharing their journey in a way that respectful in a way that brings everybody together?”

The challenges extend beyond Pittsburgh

School districts throughout Allegheny County are seeing spikes in their English-learning populations, including small districts with limited resources, who have not had to provide extensive translation and interpretation services before.

Baldwin-Whitehall is among the districts that have served a diverse population for years.

What is the demographic makeup of the Baldwin-Whitehall school district?

Credit Virginia Alvino Young / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Kelly Noyes assists school districts with translation services at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit. Denise Sedlacek is assistant superintendent of Baldwin-Whitehall schools.

“We have a large percentage of refugee and immigrant families, rating second only to Pittsburgh public,” said Denise Sedlacek, Assistant Superintendent of the district. The district consists of roughly 12 percent refugee and immigrant students.

“But when we look at our kindergarten, first and second grade, we're seeing a shift to almost 24 percent Asian students that are typically from Nepal or Burma.”

There are students from 36 countries speaking about 54 languages and dialects. Sedlacek said the growth has been consistent and she expects that trend to continue.

Kelly Noyes works for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, which supports districts throughout the county. She said that growth is reflected across Allegheny County, including some small areas “like Moon, West Allegheny, the Cornell area, Carnegie. They have all seen quite a boom in this population,” said Noyes.

How well would you say schools and districts are informed about that federal requirement that they're really obligated to provide translation services for students and families?

“I think they're really getting there as far as knowing what it is that they have to do. But that's just the first part,” said Noyes. “Then they have to know what resources they have available, how to properly utilize them and how to apply it across the district. Also how to support it financially. And I think they do a pretty good job of making sure that those high stakes pieces of information are translated or interpreted for parents. But where I think the challenge really lies is in the little things day to day, the small communications from classrooms.”

What resources are available for these regional districts?

In Baldwin-Whitehall, Sedlacek said the district utilizes a phone translation service, and partners with five different agencies to provide services. “The interpretation services come out of the general fund.”

There are some similar practices in place across the county. The AIU offers the opportunity for districts to all buy-in together to various services, like a telephone-based interpretation service.

“It's absolutely a challenge,” said Noyes, “and when you think about where some we've seen some of the significant growth over the last few years, they are some of our smallest school districts with in-turn the smallest budget and the growth was rapid and not necessarily expected. And when you are talking about the cost for these services, an IEP [Individual Education Plan] can run $3,000 to $5,000 to translate one written IEP. And so the services are extremely expensive.”

How will everyone ensure that the federal standard and community need is met?

“I have seen in my work with the districts over the last few years a tremendous amount of growth and I think the biggest challenge they have to work around the lack of financial support for this need,” said Noyes.

Sedlacek points to the AIU as a useful resource for all districts.

“By having the regional meetings at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit we're able to network, we're able to share resources,” she said.

Sedlacek said that spirit of collaboration extends beyond the AIU.

“Some of my colleagues that I work closely with will reach out and they'll pick up the phone, and say ‘Hey Denise how are you handling this situation?’"

She said public education is facing a difficult time.

“[Governor] Wolf has really put a lot of money into education but we're still not there yet, we're not scratching the surface,” said Sedlacek. “There has been some funding changes but it really hurts districts because the money is not there for K-12 public education, and this is just one small example of how inequitable funding hurts districts when it comes to special populations of students.”