PHILADELPHIA (AP) – Parents in Philadelphia who do not speak English say they have long been excluded from parts of their children’s education due to language barriers, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic and the return to in-person learning.
Parents told The Associated Press that students were being used as translators despite federal bans, incorrect phone translations and poor communication about bullying. Experts say many other school districts have fallen behind in creating fair systems for non-English speakers.
Philadelphia school officials said there had been progress, including sending communications in the parents’ language and hiring dozens more interpreters at the school called bilingual cultural assistants, or BCA. They also said the district has strong guidelines for asking for language help.
Yet the problems persist.
Mandy, who asked the AP not to use his last name, struggled to send her 10-year-old son with special needs back to school in person, but decided the virtual option wasn’t did not provide enough support for parents who do not speak English.
Mandy said her biggest language difficulties were during special education meetings at her son’s previous school. She still spends hours translating reports into Mandarin as the district provides limited translations.
During a meeting, a translator over the phone said she was unfamiliar with special education and refused to translate, so Mandy started bringing a bilingual friend to help her. Another time, a translator said that Mandy’s staff were going to teach her son to âeat meat,â which her friend corrected, explaining that they were talking about food therapy.
âIt sounds like a comedic incident, but it was really frustrating,â Mandy said in Mandarin through a translator. “One gets the impression that immigrant parents are being deliberately excluded and pushed to the margins.”
Jenna Monley, deputy chief of the district family and community engagement office, said the office has asked school staff to start providing in-person interpreters for special education meetings when possible. She said staff are trained in the use of BCAs or contracted translation options. But annual refresher training is not compulsory for most teachers.
âI think you are always going to find pockets of success. But there are some areas where things need to grow and improve, âsaid Monley.
English learners have increased in the Philadelphia District to over 16,500 in 2020, up from around 12,000 in 2013, and nearly a quarter of Philadelphia residents over the age of 5 do not speak English at home , according to census figures.
A report from the US Department of Education last year showed that the number of English learners increased by around 28% nationwide between the 2000-01 school year and the 2016 school year. -17. The report showed that 43 states had increased the number of English learners.
Nationally, the census showed that the number of people who speak languages ââother than English at home has increased by more than 8 million over the past decade, from about 20.6% to almost 22%.
Juntos, an advocacy group for Latino immigrants in Philadelphia, interviewed families in 2020 about their pandemic concerns. Executive Director Erika Guadalupe NÃºÃ±ez said after basic needs schooling was a major concern, including how to communicate with teachers who spoke only English.
She said members have regularly voiced concerns about schools, such as children being asked to translate.
âWe just want the kids to be kids. And we want them to stay in class and have the same opportunities to learn as English speaking children, âsaid Guadalupe NÃºÃ±ez.
The United States Department of Education’s Civil Rights Office receives dozens of parent language complaints each year. This directives issued in 2015 on the legal obligation to communicate in the parents’ language, stating that neither pupils nor untrained bilingual staff should translate.
Monley said the district has 101 BCAs after hiring around 45 in recent years. They serve in 108 of the 224 schools, but many float between multiple schools.
Helen Gym, a Philadelphia City Council member and longtime education and immigration rights activist, said she wanted to see performers in every school every day.
“We have a long way to go to enforce the language access mandates which are clearly in the legal books,” she said.
Gym said immigrant families often appear to be an afterthought, noting that the number of BCAs was cut in half during major budget cuts around 2011 after changes to the education funding formula of the State.
BCAs were created during the implementation of a settlement in a lawsuit filed by Asian American students in the 1980s demanding better resources.
But BCAs are still the only designated bilingual staff in school buildings, Gym said, and they often act as brokers for important resources outside of school. Still, they receive a starting salary of $ 24,000, she said.
Olivia Ponce, 46, remembers trying to talk to a school counselor when another student punched her daughter, Olivia Vazquez. As an interpreter was not available, the counselor asked a student to translate.
Another time, Ponce rushed to her son’s school after a student bit him. The teacher had not planned to call Ponce, but another mother alerted her.
âI didn’t know we had rights and that they couldn’t take students out of the classroom to help us translate. And that they had to put someone online to help us. They never told us, âPonce said in Spanish.
Monley said the district could not comment on specific allegations, adding that many parents had not filed formal complaints through his office. However, many parents said staff never mentioned a formal complaint process.
Experts said districts everywhere have seen an increase in the number of non-English speakers. Dominic J. Ledesma, educational justice researcher, said many districts are trying to deliver what is legally required without thinking about making schools an inclusive place for immigrant families.
âRespect for the law and respect for civil rights are just as important as the equity issues involved. These issues are truly pervasive and systemic in nature and are not confined to Philadelphia,â said Ledesma.
Vazquez, now 27, is completing her teaching degree at Swarthmore College and hopes to help immigrant students have a more positive experience.
“(Education is) something I want to do because of my background and because I needed someone who looks like me and tells me that everything is fine and makes me proud of my roots,” said said Vazquez.