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What’s At Stake When There’s A Language Barrier Between Families And Schools?

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
Maka Osman, center, with her children and neice and nephew in her Northside home.

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.

Life changed for Maka Osman when Pittsburgh Public Schools hired her sister-in-law, Amina Muya six years ago.

Osman speaks limited English and relies on Muya to interpret communication from the schools into her native language, Chizigua, a Bantu dialect.

“It has been a major change and it has been very helpful,” Osman said through Muya. “And even though the kids sometimes do make mistakes and do the wrong thing and make poor choices, with the ability of communicating with the teachers and knowing what’s going on, we have been able to take the right actions.”

Osman has had children in the Pittsburgh Public School district for 15 years. She emigrated with her family from Somalia in 2004. Before Muya was hired, Osman said she had a hard time navigating communication with the schools.

“Like, for example, if the kids were involved in a fight and they got suspended, they wouldn’t know what actually happened,” Osman said through Muya. “That was a major challenge. But now that’s a little bit better because we have people who speak our language.”

Osman’s children often translate documents sent home from the school that are written in English. But, she said translation services, which are written, would not be useful for her. The dialect she speaks is a spoken language, not written.

The district acknowledges that students sometimes end up translating for their parents. Jonathan Covel, the director for the English as a Second Language office, said that practice is not encouraged. The district has translators on staff and schools have had access to a phone translation service for two years now called TransPerfect. As for the literacy barrier, Covel said parents are encouraged to establish with the school how they want to receive language services.

“We want to value all languages equally. Whether it’s one student that speaks the language in the district or 600, that we’re providing the appropriate vehicle for messages to be conveyed,” he said.

Osman’s story is common in the Pittsburgh region. The area is becoming increasingly diverse. While new refugee numbers have seen a drop due to political reasons, like limits on who’s allowed to resettle and travel bans, western Pennsylvania is still seeing growth.

Now, about one in 20 Allegheny County residents was born outside of the U.S.

A working group of Pittsburgh lawyers, community members and educators found that for immigrant and refugee families, communication is the most pervasive barrier affecting engagement. The Pittsburgh public school district, though, says changes are coming.

Legal obligations

Two years ago a family represented by the Education Law Center, a Pennsylvania legal nonprofit, sued the Pittsburgh school district.

The lawsuit involved a Somali Bantu student, who was a child of refugees and also identified as having a disability. He was entitled to both special education services, and English as a Second Language services, but wasn’t receiving either.

“The school was having meetings that didn't have translators, they were sending home notices that were only in English. They were encouraging the father to sign documents that he didn't fully understand,” said Jackie Perlow, a staff attorney with the Education Law Center. “These violations were very serious and significant for this individual child and affecting his ability to learn and thrive in school.”

In short, school districts are legally required to interpret or translate all communication to all parents. It’s a huge task, especially in Pittsburgh where nearly 50 languages are spoken within the district. Those requirements are rooted in federal civil rights laws in both Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Educational Opportunities Act.

Students in special education receive an individualized education program, or IEP, to meet their personal needs. Translating and interpreting that information can be challenging.

Perlow said the ELC has seen these issue among many families in many different districts.

“We were able to come to a settlement [with PPS] that both met this child's individual needs, got him a better appropriate program, got his parents translation and interpretation services, but also set up a working group,” said Perlow.

That working group met for two years to create a set of recommendations for the Pittsburgh district. Those recommendations were approved by the school board this past fall and winter. The district still has to implement those recommendations that include ways to better engage families, train staff and increase IT capacity.

But Pittsburgh’s school district and nearby districts frequently fall short of meeting their translation obligations to families. In Pittsburgh, it took a lawsuit to create change.

“I hope it doesn't take a lawsuit in every single district because that would be very time consuming,” Perlow said. “And we don't have that time to waste. You know every student has a certain amount of time in school and they don't get that back.”

Perlow said districts with growing numbers of English learners shouldn’t be complacent.

“So school districts need to be prepared to meet students’ needs. And that means being pro-active instead of reactive. So adopting policies like the one that Pittsburgh Public has adopted before lawyers come in and file a lawsuit,” she said. “That's not the way to really meet the needs of children and families.”

What’s at stake

Education systems across the country vary. It’s challenging to navigate systemic differences while adapting to a new culture.

“Here, many parents are not aware of the rights they have, are not aware that they should be receiving everything that's translated,” said Rosamaria Cristello, the executive director of the Latino Community Center in downtown Pittsburgh.

She said unless an immigrant or refugee parent, who often have limited English proficiency, encounters an organization that knows the schools legally have to provide services, they could continue on throughout the school year not knowing they have rights.

“Once they're aware, then it's getting over the fear of asking for it. There's fear in some individuals of their immigration status,” she said.

She said they tell families: “You have every right to advocate for your child's education. In many cases that's why you made the sacrifice to come here. So we need to make sure that your child gets a good education and equitable access to opportunities.”

Because there’s a lot at stake if a parent isn’t involved in their child’s education, she said.

“Everyone should be caring about this,” Cristello said. “We are training the workforce of the future here in Pittsburgh…Ten years from now these kids are going to be the people that are going to be employed…It's directly going to impact our region.”