PHILADELPHIA, -- Philadelphia parents who do not speak English claim that they have been excluded from their children's education for years because of language barriers. This problem has only been exacerbated since the pandemic and return to in-person learning.
The Associated Press was told by parents of stories about students who were used as translators despite federal prohibitions and poor telephone translations. Experts agree that Philadelphia is not the only one that has not created systems that are more inclusive of non-English speakers. They also noted that school districts have lacked the ability to respond to complaints and create systems that recognize that non-English speakers can be treated equally.
Officials from Philadelphia's school districts said that the district has made significant progress over the years. They have sent communication in parents' languages, and hired dozens more bilingual cultural assistants (or BCAs) in schools. The district has strong guidance about how to request help in language and policies that prohibit children from being used as translators.
Mandy has a 10-year old son with special needs. She asked the AP to not use her last name. Mandy struggled to decide whether to send her son to in-person school, but she decided that the virtual option wasn't enough support for parents who don’t speak English.
Mandy stated that her greatest struggle in language access was during special education meetings at the school where her son attended. Despite the fact that things have improved since she transferred him from one school to another in 2020, Mandy still spends hours translating documents into Mandarin as there are very few documents fully translated in her district.
One meeting saw a telephone translator tell Mandy she doesn't know much about special education. She also refused to translate. Mandy began to bring a bilingual friend along as a backup. Mandy was also told by a translator that the district would teach her son how to eat meat. Her friend quickly corrected her mistake and explained that the specialist was talking about goals for feeding therapy.
Mandy spoke Mandarin through a translator. It feels like immigrant parents have been deliberately excluded and pushed to marginalized."
Jenna Monley is the deputy chief of the District's Office of Family and Community Engagement. She said that the office has provided guidance to district and school staff on how to move to in-person interpreters to facilitate individualized education plan meetings.
"I believe that you will always find success pockets." Monley stated that there are areas that need to be improved and grow.
Philadelphia's English-speaking population grew to 16,500 in 2020, from 12,000 in 2013. Census data shows that nearly 25% of Philadelphians over 5 speak another language at home.
Juntos, an advocacy group for Latinx immigrants in South Philadelphia, conducted a telephone survey with families asking them about their concerns regarding the pandemic. Erika Guadalupe Nunez, the executive director, stated that after basic needs, 91% of respondents listed schooling as their next concern. She also explained how to communicate with English-speaking teachers and how to get a school computer.
Guadalupe Nunez stated that "it was food, shelter and health -- the essential things they needed to feel safe, whole and secure,"
She said that Juntos members had long complained about their children being removed from school by principals or teachers to translate at schools. This is against school policy, and against federal regulations.
It's frustrating because of so many reasons. We want children to be kids. Guadalupe Nunez stated that they want children to be kids and to continue learning English.
The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights receives many parental language complaints every year. published guidance in 2015. It explained the legal obligation to communicate in the languages parents understand. This included stating that students and untrained bilingual staff cannot translate. It also states that translators must be familiar with any specialized terms and concepts in both languages.
Monley stated that the office offers guidance to school and district staff on how to use BCAs and other contracted translation options. Refresher trainings are required only for "key staff," but this doesn't apply to most teachers.
Helen Gym, a Philadelphia City Councilmember who has spent many years advocating for education, immigration, and issues, stated that she would like to see interpreters in every school, and more multilingual staff, including counselors, nurses, and other support staff.
She stated that "we have a long road to go in order to enforce the language accessibility mandates that are clearly in law and were in fact the source for many different lawsuits, consent decrees"
Gyms often feel like immigrant families are an afterthought.
"This was a place a decade ago that was at the brink of closing its public schools. She said that this would have been catastrophic for immigrant communities. She was referring to budget cuts made in 2011 following changes to the state’s education funding formula.
BCAs were established during the implementation in a settlement in a case brought by Asian American students in 1980s seeking better resources for their English learning. Gym was a member of the commission that implemented the settlement and said that the settlement benefits all immigrant communities.
Gym stated that BCAs remain the only bilingual staff members in schools. They often act as cultural brokers, connecting parents to important resources outside school. She said that they start at $24,000 but are paid an average salary.
Monley stated that 101 BCAs are in the district, after having hired 45 of them over the past few school years. They are located in 108 of the 220 schools that have the highest language needs. Many BCAs move between schools each week.
Gym stated that the district still has the same number BCAs as a decade ago, which is good news for thousands of families and students.
Olivia Ponce stated that she felt frustrated by the language barrier between her two children who are almost a decade apart. A 46-year old single mother recalls trying to speak to a school counselor after Olivia Vazquez was struck by another student.
The counselor took a student to class to translate because an interpreter was not available every week. Ponce stated that the student was not translating accurately and she became frustrated. She then sent her daughter home for a week.
Ponce also ran to her son's school after another mother saw him crying in the office of the principal. He had been bitten by a student, so the teacher planned to send him a note in English and not call him.
"I didn’t know that we had rights, and that they couldn’t take students out to translate for us. They were also obligated by law to assist us. In Spanish, Ponce stated that they had not told them this. "I want parents to understand that their children have the right to participate in education when they start it."
Vazquez is now 27 and she is wrapping up her final semester at Swarthmore College. She hopes to make Philadelphia a better place for immigrant students. She is a student teacher in South Philadelphia, where she is in fourth grade. This is the same age as when she arrived in the U.S.A from Mexico.
Vazquez stated, "Education is something I want to do because it's my experience. I also needed someone who was like me. Someone who would make me proud of my roots and tell me it was OK."
Experts say that many districts have seen an increase in parents and students who speak languages other then English, and not just in urban areas. Dominic J. Ledesma is an educational justice researcher. He said that many districts do what the law requires, but don't consider making schools more welcoming for immigrants.
"Legal compliance is just as important as civil rights compliance. These issues are systemic and pervasive, and not just in Philadelphia. It's everywhere," Ledesma said. "In an equitable system, administrators are responsible to all parents."
Many parents felt that they needed to do more than English-speaking parents in order to get involved due to the language barrier.
Lucia Altamirano recalled having to find an English speaker to accompany her to school when her oldest son was bullied.
"They called me from school but asked for someone who could speak English to help me. So, I found someone and we went. She told me Alexis had fallen down stairs," Altamirano explained in Spanish. "They didn’t tell me that he was thrown down the stairs but that he had fallen down them stairs.
Altamirano stated that her 8-year-old son tried to report bullying but the teacher said she couldn't handle all the students.
The bullying stopped after she transferred her son to another school. Altamirano stated that language problems continued as there was no interpreter, and that the school used an eighth-grade girl to translate.
She stated that her younger children spoke fluent English and had an easier time. She also mentioned that the district made many improvements to make things easier, such as assigning a Spanish-speaking BCA to the school and sending home Spanish-language report cards.
Monley and other staff from the district said that they could not comment on individual allegations because many parents hadn't filed formal complaints through their office.
Many parents claimed that the school officials who complained to them didn't inform them of an official process.
Gym is holding meetings with other councilmembers in the community to ask parents what they want to see change as the district searches out a new superintendent. She called for a thorough review of compliance by the district with civil rights language requirements and, if necessary, additional litigation to force it into compliance.
She stated that she doesn't believe anyone is capable of being at the forefront if they meet the minimum standards. "And I don’t believe the school district is meeting this bare minimum for parents."