Ensuring language barriers do not get in the way of parent access to essential school and district information is not just a strategy for increasing engagement, it’s required by federal regulations. And in districts with dozens of different languages spoken by families, meeting these obligations is no easy task.
Schools across the country have added interpreters and translators to their staffs, purchased subscriptions to telephone interpretation services, and coordinated with community agencies to make sure qualified interpreters from a range of backgrounds are available for important meetings and school events.
When it comes to basic family engagement, some schools have begun to take advantage of digital tools with built-in translators to go one step farther.
The nation’s most diverse zip code, 75038, is in the Irving neighborhood of the Dallas metro area. It’s largest population group is Asian, and they make up just 25.7% of the neighborhood. The zip code is also 25% black, 23% Latino and 23% white.
The Irving Independent School District serves much of the 75038 zip code, and, like this neighborhood, has a particularly diverse student body. This year, its students speak a total of 52 different languages. Lesley Weaver, division director of communications, says the district has interpreters on staff who can interpret into and out of some of the most common languages while also coordinating services for families who speak other languages.
While the district website has long featured an automatic translation feature, which currently translates into more than 100 different languages, Weaver has been particularly pleased with a private social network the district debuted in 13 schools in the fall of 2014 and later rolled out to the remaining 25.
Living Tree can be downloaded as a free cellphone app or accessed online, just like Facebook. Teachers can post updates about classroom lessons or upcoming events, sharing text, photos and videos in a private network that — most important for Weaver — allows two-way communication. Parents can like and comment on posts and send private messages to teachers. Thanks to the automatic translation, every user can be reading and writing in his or her preferred language.
“We know that regardless of income, regardless of language, parents want to be connected to their child’s education,” Weaver said. “All parents want what’s best for their kids.”
Living Tree gives parents an easy and direct way to communicate about day-to-day classroom activities. But while it features automatic translation, computers will never be perfect at something so complicated as translating nuanced language.
“We remind teachers in trainings that they need to be cognizant of the things they’re posting,” Weaver said.
Among the best practices they are reminded of is staying away from slang or innuendo because it may not be translated accurately. One example Weaver offers teachers is based on a standard turn of phrase — it’s common to say “we’ve got a lot of great things ‘in store’ for the new year” but “store” will almost certainly be translated into business by automatic tools.
So far, Irving ISD has about 8,200 active users on Living Tree. In a district with 35,000 students, that’s far from 100% parent participation, but considering the last app the school marketed garnered just 1,400 users, Weaver considers Living Tree a success and an important addition to its family engagement efforts.
Title VI of the Civil Rights Act says individuals cannot be discriminated against by national origin, and the courts have made clear that language barriers that prevent meaningful access to public institutions amount to exactly that. In January 2015, the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice released joint guidance to help schools and districts meet their legal obligations to English learner students and their parents and guardians with limited English proficiency. This document was the clearest and most comprehensive outline of school responsibilities on this matter to date.
From the joint guidance, schools and districts must make sure LEP parents get all the same school information provided to English-speaking parents including — but not limited to — information about: “language assistance programs, special education and related services, IEP meetings, grievance procedures, notices of nondiscrimination, student discipline policies and procedures, registration and enrollment, report cards, requests for parent permission for student participation in district or school activities, parent-teacher conferences, parent handbooks, gifted and talented programs, magnet and charter schools, and any other school and program choice options.”
Schools must also have a defined process for identifying parents who need translation and interpretation services and then providing it. And they need to provide language assistance with “appropriate, competent staff” or similarly qualified outside resources. That means asking bilingual staff members to translate in IEP meetings or pulling children in to translate for their parents during parent-teacher conferences is not allowed.
“Some bilingual staff and community volunteers may be able to communicate directly with LEP parents in a different language, but not be competent to interpret in and out of English … or to translate documents,” the guidance reads. School districts can be — and have been — found liable for relying on untrained or unqualified interpreters.
While app-based, automatic translators cannot fulfill a district’s responsibilities under the Civil Rights Act, Irving ISD has found its chosen tool can at least round out engagement efforts across a diverse community.
“We want families to feel like they have good, accurate, current information about what is going on in their child’s school as well as how they can help them,” Weaver said.
Its social network can at least do that.