Lost in Translation

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

A kindergartner flips the page while reading in class at Crawford Elementary in Aurora. (Denver Post file)

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.

Top 10 languages in APS by number of parents who have listed it as a preference for communication

    • English, 26,617
    • Spanish, 11,316
    • Amharic, 386
    • Nepali, 268
    • Somali, 241
    • Burmese, 205
    • Vietnamese, 174
    • Arabic, 171
    • Karen, 157
    • French, 119

Source: Aurora Public Schools

“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.


Aurora school board to consider one-year charter contract for school with conflict of interest

PHOTO: Andrea Chu

Aurora’s school board is set to decide Tuesday whether to renew the charter of a well-rated school that long has served children with special needs — but that also has become caught up in questions over conflicts of interest and opaque finances.

Aurora district administrators, concerned about operations of Vanguard Classical School, are recommending just a one-year charter extension rather than the usual five-year contract.

District staff members told the school board earlier this year that they were unsure about the school’s relationship with Ability Connection Colorado, the nonprofit that started the school and provides services through a $350,000 agreement. Not only does that contract lack specifics, but also the nonprofit’s CEO, Judy Ham, serves as the president of the charter school’s board and has signed agreements between the two organizations on behalf of Vanguard.

“You can see the clear conflict of interest concern that arose for us,” Lamont Browne, the district’s director of autonomous schools, told the school board in February.

The charter school board president disputes the findings of the conflicts of interest, but said the school is going to comply with all of the contract’s conditions anyway.

Vanguard, which first opened in 2007, was created to serve students with special needs in an inclusive model, meaning, as much as possible those students are blended into regular classrooms. Currently, the charter operates two campuses. One, near Lowry, enrolls about 500 K-8 students, and the second, a K-12 campus on the east side of the city, enrolls about 745 students. More than half of the students at each campus qualify for free or reduced price lunches, a measure of poverty.

In reviewing Vanguard, the district found it has a higher percentage of students who perform well on some state tests than the district does. The school also has a good rating from annual state reviews.

But the unclear relationship between the school and its founding nonprofit have raised doubts.

Although the relationship and service agreements the school has with the nonprofit aren’t new, Aurora’s concerns came up during an interview step that was added to the charter renewal process this year. Last time Vanguard went through a review from the district, five years ago, the district’s office of autonomous schools that now oversees charter schools did not exist. Staff describe previous reviews as compliance checklists.

Ham told district reviewers in that new step during the review process, that she never recused herself from board votes involving her employer.

But Ham now says that she misspoke, and meant that she has never recused herself officially because she just doesn’t vote on matters involving Ability Connection Colorado.

“It felt like (it was) a loaded question” Ham said. “But I don’t recuse myself because I don’t ever vote. It’s almost like a foregone conclusion.”

Browne also told the board he was concerned with the lack of detail about the $350,000 service agreement.

“Considering the amount that that contract was for, we were very concerned about the lack of detail regarding those services,” Browne said. He also pointed to school staff’s “lack of clarity with regard to what they were paying for and what they were receiving.”

Ham said the charter school has rewritten and added more detail to the agreements about what Ability Connection Colorado does for the school, which she said includes payroll services, human resources, building management, and risk assessments for students. The school’s west campus also shares a building with the nonprofit.

“We are on-call 24-7,” Ham said. “We wanted to provide everything so that the school could focus on being able to do the most important thing which is educating the children, knowing that inclusive education is hard to do.”

But what the functions of the nonprofit are aren’t clear, according to Aurora administrators.

“The school should not be wondering what services they are or are not receiving from the company,” said Mackenzie Stauffer, Aurora’s charter school coordinator.

Administrators recommend a renewed contract include stipulations such as governance training for the school’s board, meant to address conflicts of interest.

Ben Lindquist, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said that there are laws that could apply to give charter school authorizers like Aurora authority over conflict-of-interest issues.

“It should be within the purview of an authorizer to inquire into conflicts of interest if it perceives they are there,” Lindquist said. “But there’s not just one way to remedy that.”

Among the contract’s conditions, the district will also ask that Vanguard’s board be more transparent about recording board votes on significant decisions. Initially, district staff also said they considered asking Vanguard to remove the current board and replace all members, but officials said they ran into some problems with what they were allowed to ask the school to do.

“There’s a very interesting place we are in where we are the authorizer — we don’t run the school and we want to maintain that delineation,” Browne said. “However if we feel like there is something that could be a potential challenge for the school, we feel like it’s our duty to do what we can to suggest or recommend those changes.”

trading for tuition

New deal gives Aurora staff and graduates discounted college tuition at one online school

Aurora graduates and staff will now get a discount on college tuition at an online school as part of a deal in which the college will get a building in exchange for the discounted rates, district officials announced Monday.

The district had been working on the unique deal for more than a year. Initially, it raised several questions among school board members who wondered if there was a conflict of interest in selecting the CSU-Global Campus as the higher education partner for the district. They also wondered if that would be the best place for students of Aurora’s demographics, including students of color and students from low-income families since online schools often don’t show success serving at-risk students.

Aurora superintendent, Rico Munn, who came up with the idea for the plan, is chair of the governing board for the Colorado State University system, but has said he was not negotiating the deal. CSU-Global is an online four-year university under the CSU system. It was set up to serve non-traditional students, and officials believe it may help address some of the reasons Aurora students cite in not going to college, such as not being able to leave Aurora, or needing to work while going to school.

According to the latest numbers from a Colorado Department of Higher Education report, about 42 percent of Aurora students from the class of 2016 enrolled in higher education. A different state report evaluating the district puts that figure closer to 38 percent. The rate is significantly lower than the college-going rate for the state of about 56 percent.

CSU-Global just recently began accepting first-year college students — addressing another concern of previous school board members that students would have to go elsewhere on their own first.

Monday’s announcement states that Aurora graduates, going back to those from 2012, can enroll this year at a tuition rate of $250 per credit hour to earn their bachelor’s degree online. The statement estimates students would save approximately $2,400 per year on tuition based on a typical course load.

District staff pursuing an undergraduate degree will also receive the rate of $250 per credit hour, while staff members pursuing graduate degrees will receive a discounted rate of $335 per credit hour. A website lists full tuition rates at $350 per credit hour for undergraduate, and $500 per credit hour for graduate courses.

Other questions centered around whether the deal made financial sense for the district, but some of those questions haven’t been answered.

According to Monday’s news release, the discount rates “are available as APS and CSU-Global continue to work toward a long-term partnership.”

The money to pay for the higher-ed building will come from the $300 million bond package that Aurora voters approved in 2016.

Current board president Marques Ivey said in a released statement that he was “thrilled” the district could offer the discounts.

“While we recognize that an online experience may not be right for every student, we want to continue to pursue partnerships that expand offerings and reduce barriers to earning post-secondary certificates and degrees,” Ivey said in the statement. “This partnership is another significant effort toward achieving our vision that every APS student shapes a successful future.”