Aurora parents who need translation services describe tears, missed connections, and a bureaucratic tangle

When teacher Velia Muñoz wanted to get an interpreter for a community event she was helping plan at an Aurora school, she didn’t know where to start.

One call led to another and another, she said.

“It was like going through all these hoops,” Muñoz said.

In Aurora Public Schools, there’s no one place to call for help with interpretation or translation. Translation services for parents of a student with special needs are handled through the department that oversees those programs. Translation services for the family of a student who is learning English as a second language are provided by the English language development department. The communication department translates for district level announcements or reports, and the Aurora Welcome Center helps fill in some gaps. Many other translations are funded and provided by individual schools.

This confusing process is part of a larger problem that a group of parents and community members are asking the district to fix.

“In a community like Aurora, when we have people from all different countries and places, we have the responsibility to serve them correctly,” Muñoz said. “You should have a language office. It should be on the forefront of your mind.”

Parents, teachers, students, and community members have organized through RISE Colorado, a parent advocacy nonprofit. The group also helped parents last year when they wanted the district to pass a resolution in support of immigrant students. At a meeting with school board members earlier this month, parents, many through translators, shared their experiences of feeling left out of their children’s education.

One Hispanic mother told a story about a time a teacher made her second-grade daughter cry, and she didn’t know how to talk to anyone at the school about it. A Nepali college student said that he is the one attending school conferences and meetings for his younger siblings because his parents don’t speak English.

Husanara Makbul Hussin, who speaks Burmese — the preferred home language for more than 200 families in the district — told Chalkbeat through a translator she wants to help her three children succeed in school, but feels like she can’t help.

“If they send a report like a report card but we don’t understand it, we don’t know if it’s good or bad,” Makbul Hussin said. “If we receive the report cards in Burmese, we can understand and know the children’s situation so we can help them and participate and work with the teacher.”

Listening to RISE parents, district officials are already in the process of making some changes.

Efren Ortiz, the district’s langauge services coordinator, speaking with Salamah Bibi and Husanara Makbul Hussin. (Photo provided by RISE Colorado)

Patti Moon, the director of communications for the district, said her office worked with parents to identify some district reports that need to be translated into the district’s top 10 languages.

Efrén Ortiz, the district’s language services coordinator, created some generic audio recordings for school-level calls, including announcements for parent-teacher conferences or school workshops.

Now he’s working on developing a simple way to train front office staff at every Aurora school on how to use the translated messages when making automated calls to parents. The goal is to train staff at each school in northwest Aurora, where there’s a higher concentration of families that don’t speak English, by the end of the year.

Parents say they are pleased with the work that the district is doing, but they have concerns that it isn’t part of the district’s policies or structures. Schools aren’t formally required to translate documents and calls to parents or to provide interpreters at their meetings.

Most district policies are silent on language issues. One exception is a policy that applies to Title 1 schools — a designation for schools that have high numbers of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch. It states the district “will support Title I schools in their efforts to eliminate language barriers as they communicate with families.”

The general district policy for communicating with parents does not say anything about communicating in a language parents can understand.

Moon said creating a blanket district policy wouldn’t be helpful. Instead, district officials are working on helping schools do their existing work better.

“Schools are already focused and committed to this work,” Moon said.

Pae Meh, who also spoke through a translator, said that from her experiences, existing services aren’t working.

“One day I went to the school, and I met with one of the teachers,” said Meh, the mother of three Aurora students. “She told me she wants to help us. We tried to call the interpreter, but we could not find an interpreter.”

Finally, the teacher, crying, told Meh she was really sorry, she recalls. Two months later, Meh still doesn’t know what the teacher wanted to tell her.

“It’s difficult to have communication between parents and teachers,” Meh said.

She said sometimes students are asked to translate, but Meh said her children sometimes also don’t understand everything said in English. Other parents say they worry about their children missing class time when they are asked to translate.

Aurora Public Schools board member Kyla Armstrong-Romero said she still has questions about how translation services are provided and paid for in the district, but she is interested in considering a new policy that would stop schools from pulling students out of class to translate.

“Utilizing kids to translate, that’s injustice,” Armstrong-Romero said. “I knew that was an issue, but I didn’t know to what extent.”

Parents also want the district to provide better breakdowns of achievement data by race or ethnicity.

There is a concern that the achievement of groups of student refugees, for instance, may be masked as it is rolled together with the Asian or African-American student categories used most often by education agencies.

Moon said district leaders aren’t sure if a better breakdown of student data is possible, but they are looking into it.

School board members will hear from parents making these requests formally again at a regular board meeting Feb. 20 when the board is planning to have a discussion on community engagement.