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.

Local funding

Aurora board to consider placing school tax hike on November ballot

A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora, Colorado helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Seeking to boost student health and safety and raise teacher pay, Aurora school officials will consider asking voters to approve a $35 million tax plan in November.

The school board will hear its staff’s proposal for the proposed ballot measure Tuesday. The board may discuss the merits of the plan but likely would not decide whether to place it on the ballot until at least the following week.

Aurora voters in 2016 approved a bond request which allowed the district to take on $300 million in debt for facilities, including the replacement building for Mrachek Middle School, and building a new campus for a charter school from the DSST network.

But this year’s proposed tax request is for a mill levy override, which is ongoing local money that is collected from property taxes and has less limitations for its use.

Aurora officials are proposing to use the money, estimated to be $35 million in 2019, to expand staff and training for students’ mental health services, expanding after-school programs for elementary students, adding seat belts to school buses, and boosting pay “to recruit and retain high quality teachers.”

The estimated cost for homeowners would be $98.64 per year, or $8.22 per month, for each $100,000 of home value.

Based on previous discussions, current board members appear likely to support the recommendation.

During budget talks earlier this year, several board members said they were interested in prioritizing funding for increased mental health services. The district did allocate some money from the 2018-19 budget to expand services, described as the “most urgent,” and mostly for students with special needs, but officials had said that new dollars could be needed to do more.

The teacher pay component was written into the contract approved earlier this year between the district and the teachers union. If Aurora voters approved the tax measure, then the union and school district would reopen negotiations to redesign the way teachers are paid.

In crafting the recommendation, school district staff will explain findings from focus groups and polling. Based on polls conducted of 500 likely voters by Frederick Polls, 61 percent said in July they would favor a school tax hike.

The district’s presentation for the board will also note that outreach and polling indicate community support for teacher pay raises, student services and other items that a tax hike would fund.

Language barriers

Aurora school district expands translation and interpretation in response to parent demands

Patricia Shaw, an interpreter for Aurora Public Schools, left, shows Indonesia Maye how to use the transmitters during a back-to-school event at Aurora West College Preparatory Academy on August 6. Maye was hired by the district to interpret to Somali students and their families at the event. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Hsa Mlu, a mother of four children, recently started receiving communications from her sons’ Aurora schools in her native Southeast Asian language, Karen.

“I am so excited,” Mlu, who has two sons in Aurora schools, said through an interpreter. “I am sure it’s going to be better for parents.”

In the past Mlu said that when she received communications in English from her children’s schools, she would rush it over to a friend’s house — even in the rain or snow — to ask for help.

“I didn’t understand what I had to do or what it was for,” Mlu said.

Mlu is one of the parent leaders who has been working with the nonprofit organization RISE Colorado for more than a year to ask Aurora Public Schools to improve language services. Parents, like Mlu, have shared stories with the district and the school board, about how their language barriers have prevented them from being more involved in their children’s education. Teachers also said it was a problem for them.

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 response, the district last year started working on translating some documents, and training secretaries and school staff to use the district’s system to send out automated calls in various languages. Board members responded by passing a resolution to prohibit educators from relying on children to translate official or formal discussions with parents. And this summer, the district included $200,000 in its 2018-19 budget to centralize language services under the communications office.

“Our families are feeling really excited that their voices were heard,” said RISE Colorado’s co-founder and CEO Veronica Crespin-Palmer.

Now Aurora educators, such as principals and teachers, can use a simplified, common form online to ask the district for help with translations or interpretations for their students’ families.

It’s a change from years past when language help was scattered among various district departments with each department available for only particular purposes. It was a process educators and families said wasn’t easy to understand.

Having all of the district’s expertise in one office now should help in coordinating and filling language requests, said Patti Moon, the district’s chief communication officer.

District officials expect that the simplified process will increase demand for translation or interpretation services this school year, and so the district is preparing to expand its abilities with the allocated money.

In part, that means adding services in more languages. Right now, Aurora has in-house language services for Spanish, but in a district where families have listed 143 different languages as their preferred language, there’s a need for more.

In one step to make more interpreters available, the district has been certifying its own bilingual staff in translation, so they can be available after work to pick up assignments translating or interpreting for school or district events. Currently, district officials say there are more than 120 district-approved interpreters, and officials want to recruit more. District interpreters and other staff can provide interpretation in 14 languages.

The district also has a partnership with interpreters-in-training from the Community College of Aurora.

Aurora also plans to use some of the money to improve quality by providing professional training to language services staff.

But the parents’ work will continue, said the mother, Mlu. Parents requested to continue monthly meetings with the district’s language staff to provide feedback about how the schools are rolling out the changes. The district agreed to continue the collaboration.

In addition to streamlining its internal communications, the district is providing one service designed for parents and the community: the introduction of language identification cards.

RISE parents designed the business-size cards that the district printed in the top 10 languages, with a blank space for people to fill in their name to show school attendants what language they speak. Accompanying one-sheet forms include translations of common requests such as excusing a child from school, requesting a meeting with a teacher, or asking for an interpreter. (See a copy of both below)

The cards will be made available in schools for parents to use and have an easier time communicating simple requests, or asking for an interpreter.

Crespin-Palmer said she hopes the cards, the process, and the changes the district is making can be a model for other districts.

Mlu said she appreciates the significant changes she’s seen so far. But, she said, she’s still wants the district to know she’s watching.

“We are parent leaders, and we keep watching the for the interpretation and translation to improve,” she said. “We’re working toward it too.”