Services for non-English families lacking in New Orleans schools

By Katy Reckdahl, The New Orleans Advocate

Every school night, Ramon Leon helps his older son with his homework. Typically, they speed through the math worksheets. Word problems take longer because Leon’s son, a third-grader at a New Orleans charter school, has to translate them into Spanish for his father, who speaks little English. Grammar worksheets sometimes stump them both. (Leon does not want the school’s name published out of respect for his son’s teachers.)

father and son school

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON– Ramon Leon helps his son, third-grade Ramon Leon Jr., 10, by using the Google Translate app which will scan words from a page and translate them from English into Spanish at the VAYLA community office in New Orleans East in New Orleans, La. Sunday, March 16, 2014. VAYLA community organizer Cristiane Wijngaarde, left, also helps out the Leon family with translation.

Leon, who moved to New Orleans from Mexico with two sons just before the start of the school year, is an involved parent: He attends all report-card conferences — using his third-grader as an interpreter. On the nights when he can’t help his older son figure out an assignment, he won’t sign the homework form. Instead, he writes “No entiendo” — Spanish for “I don’t understand.”

Usually, the teacher responds with a note to him in English. And the confusion continues.

The Leon family’s dilemma is typical of the challenges facing New Orleans families who speak Spanish or Vietnamese. Households where one of those two languages is spoken make up the overwhelming majority of the city’s non-English-speakers; and most of their children attend a decentralized school system dominated by independently operated charter schools.

Interviews with a dozen such families who have children in a range of schools found that many of the schools fail to translate letters, school calendars or even report cards. Typically, all signs posted in the school’s office are in English. Automated phone calls to parents are in English.

On-site interpreters are scarce, parents said. One mother described trying, unsuccessfully, to tell the school nurse that her son had been diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma that could be triggered in physical-education classes. Students frequently end up interpreting for teachers and parents at report-card conferences — and even at meetings where their own discipline problems are being discussed.

As a result of these gaps in services, the Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association, known as VAYLA, partnered last year with the national Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund to file a federal complaint. They did so on behalf of 35 Spanish- or Vietnamese-speaking parents with students at five named schools as well as all other non-English-speaking parents of children throughout the city’s public school system.

The complaint alleged that the Orleans Parish School District and the state-run Recovery School District, both of which oversee charter schools as well as traditional, centrally administered schools, routinely fall short of federally mandated translation services for parents who speak little or no English.

Specifically, the complaint outlined how most of the schools fail to provide translated documents concerning major school events, parent-teacher conferences, school closures, disciplinary infractions, special-education services and other topics.

Barry Landry, a spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Education, said he couldn’t comment on the complaint. He said the state monitors public schools to ensure their services for non-English-speaking families are in compliance with federal mandates. But the monitoring is mostly limited to paperwork reviews, he said.

Federal law requires school districts to “communicate as effectively with language-minority parents as (they) would with other parents,” according to a manual published by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

While many school districts nationwide — particularly those undergoing budget cuts — struggle to adequately serve non-English-speaking families, the situation in New Orleans is unique. That’s because of the ethnic and linguistic complexity of the city as well as the radically decentralized school system created since Hurricane Katrina.

“We haven’t seen this kind of situation elsewhere,” said Thomas Mariadason, a lawyer for the legal defense fund. “There’s nothing quite like the education landscape in New Orleans.”

Coming to rebuild and bringing families

Serving non-English-speaking students in Orleans schools has been complicated by a convergence of two trends: growing communities where English is not the primary language and a preponderance of independent charter schools, many of which are building programs for non-English-speaking students from scratch.

Nationwide, one in 10 students speak a language other than English. But, except for the influx of Vietnamese families relocated to the city after 1976, New Orleans had bucked the trend prior to Hurricane Katrina.

Even a decade ago, a sluggish New Orleans economy attracted few newcomers: U.S. Census data from 2000 showed that nearly 80 percent of the city’s residents were born in Louisiana, the highest rate of native-state residents in any American city.

Most New Orleans public schools had few, if any, non-English-speaking students, with the exception of a few schools clustered near the community of Vietnamese war refugees in eastern New Orleans.

But as the city rebuilt after Katrina, things changed. Plentiful construction jobs and a strong economy attracted an influx of nearly 5,000 new Hispanic residents, many of whom sent for their families and settled down. Census data show a 57 percent increase in the city’s Latino population since 2000.

The number of public school students with limited English skills has nearly tripled in New Orleans public schools within recent years: from 440 in 2006 to about 1,200 at the start of this school year, according to Louisiana Department of Education data.

Stand-alone charter schools can’t tap into a traditional school district’s cache of bilingual curriculum materials or rely on a central office to assess new students’ English-language fluency. Many of the schools are striving to create these resources but without the economies of scale that can be realized by sharing interpreters or bilingual teachers systemwide.

“They’re operating like silos,” said Ofelia García, a professor of urban education at the City University of New York who has edited and authored several books about bilingual and language education.

In 2011, the Louisiana Language Access Coalition, which formed in the wake of Katrina to address the unmet language needs of new residents, prompted some systemic reforms. One victory was convincing then-Recovery School District Superintendent John White to place Vietnamese and Spanish interpreters in school registration centers. At the coalition’s request, White also agreed to provide funding to translate the “Parent’s Guide,” a directory of New Orleans schools, into the same two languages.

But within a couple of years, the interpretation service grew erratic and the group was unable to make headway on other fronts, coalition co-chair Daesy Behrhorst said. State education spokesman Barry Landry said the erratic scheduling was due to a change in staff and that the RSD is now hiring new Vietnamese and Spanish interpreters for the registration centers, with money recently supplied by the City Council.

Language Access Coalition leaders now realize that to influence policy, they must knock on many doors, Behrhorst said. This year, coalition members plan to visit the operators of each of the city’s roughly 80 charter schools as well as the handful that are still run directly by the Orleans Parish School Board and Recovery School District. “To support parents, we have to talk to every school,” Behrhorst said.

Other advocacy organizations have gotten creative in order to help parents get the services they need in a balkanized school landscape.

On any given day, for instance, VAYLA youth advocate Cristi Wijngaarde answers her cellphone several times and hears robocalls in English advising parents about early school closures, mandatory parent meetings, field trips, detention and undone homework.

Read the full article by Katy Reckdahl from The New Orleans Advocate.

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