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.

Knock knock

House call: One struggling Aurora high school has moved parent-teacher conferences to family homes

A social studies teacher gives a class to freshman at Aurora Central High School in April 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

When Aurora Central High School held traditional parent-teacher conference nights, fewer than 75 parents showed up.

This year, by taking the conferences to students’ homes, principal Gerardo De La Garza says the school has already logged more than 400 meetings with parents.

“This is something a lot of our families wanted,” De La Garza said. “We decided we wanted to add home visits as a way to build relationships with our community. The attendance at the traditional conferences was not where we wanted it to be.”

The home visits aren’t meant to reach every single student, though — the school has more than 2,000 enrolled this year. Instead, teams of teachers serving the same grade of students work together to identify students who need additional help or are having some issues. On Fridays, when the school lets out early, teachers are to go out and meet with those families. In some cases, they also schedule visits during other times.

Some parents and students say they weren’t made aware about the change and questioned if it was a good idea, while others welcomed the different approach.

“I felt when we go home that’s kind of our space, so I wasn’t comfortable with it,” said Akolda Redgebol, a senior at Aurora Central. Her family hasn’t had a home visit. “My parents, they thought it was a little odd, too.”

A father of another Aurora Central senior spoke to the school board about the change at a meeting earlier this month.

“There’s been a lot of changes over all these years, but one thing we could always count on was the opportunity to sit down with our child’s teachers during parent teacher conferences,” he said. “I hope this new program works, I really do, but why stop holding parent teacher conference nights at the high school? I haven’t had a single meeting. I haven’t met any of his teachers this year. Also why weren’t the parents told? I got two text messages, an email, and a phone call to let me know about a coffee meeting, but not a single notice about cancelling parent teacher conferences.”

Research examining the value of parent-teacher conferences is limited, but researchers do say that increased parent engagement can help lift student achievement. This year, the struggling Commerce City-based school district of Adams 14 also eliminated traditional parent-teacher conference nights from their calendar as a way to make more use of time. But after significant pushback from parents and teachers, the district announced it will return to the traditional approach next year.

Aurora Central High School is one of five in Aurora Public Schools’ “innovation zone,” one of Superintendent Rico Munn’s signature strategies for turning around struggling schools.

The school reached a limit of low performance ratings from the state and last year was put on a state-ordered improvement plan. That plan allowed the school to press on with its innovation plan, which was approved in 2016 and grants it some autonomy for decisions on its budget, school calendar, and school model.

As part of the school’s engagement with parents, the school in the last few years has hired a family liaison, though there’s been some turnover with that position. The school also hosts monthly parent coffee nights, as has become common across many Aurora schools.

As part of the innovation plan, school and community leaders also included plans to increase home visits.

Home visits have also become popular across many school districts as another way to better connect with families. Often, teachers are taught to use the visit as a time to build relationships, not to discuss academic performance or student behavior issues.

That’s not the case at Aurora Central. Principal De La Garza said it is just about taking the parent-teacher conference to the parent’s home. And teachers have been trained on how to have those conversations, he said.

The innovation plan didn’t mention removing conference nights, however.

De La Garza said that’s because parent-teacher conferences are still an option. If parents want to request a conference, or drop by on Fridays to talk to teachers, they still can.

Those Fridays when students end classes early are also the days teachers are expected to make house calls to contact families.

Teachers are expected to reach a certain number of families each Friday, though school and district staff could not provide that exact number.

Bruce Wilcox, the president of the Aurora teachers union, said that it’s important to better engage families, but that balance is needed so not all of the responsibility is put on teachers who are already busy.

Wilcox said he would also worry about teachers having less access to resources, such as translators, during home meetings.

Maria Chavez, a mother of a freshman at Aurora Central, just had a home visit last week. She learned about the school’s strategy when she was called about setting up the visit.

Another, older daughter, was the interpreter during the home meeting with three teachers.

“For me, it was a nice experience,” Chavez said. “As parents, and even the kids, we feel more trust with the teachers.”

Chavez said she goes to parent-teacher conferences with her elementary-aged daughter, but doesn’t always have time for conferences with her high-school-aged daughter, so the home visit was convenient. Chavez also said she was able to ask questions, and said the teachers were able to answer her concerns.

“Maybe I wouldn’t say this should be how every conference happens,” she said, “but it is a good idea.”

intent to apply

Five groups may present charter applications this year to open in Aurora

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Mauricio Jackson, from left, Raymond Hurley and Adrian Rocha sit in the gym at University Prep charter school before loading on the bus for the ride home.

Five groups have signaled their intent to apply to open a charter school in the Aurora school district.

Based on the letters of interest, which were submitted last week, the five possible applications that Aurora could see this year include one high school, a Denver-grown charter school, and one tied to a national charter management organization.

Groups are required to submit a letter of intent a month before they submit a full application. In Aurora Public Schools, the deadline for applications is March 9.

District officials and two committees would review the applications that are submitted and present a recommendation to the Aurora school board before a vote in June. The earliest schools would open would be fall 2019.

Last year the district received only one application from a charter network that was invited to apply. That was for a DSST school, the high-performing Denver charter network, that is approved to open its first Aurora school in the fall of 2019. Based on this year’s letters of intent, there could be five applications.

Denver-based charters have started to express interest in moving to the suburbs as the low-income families they serve leave the city and as the Denver district slows the pace at which it seeks new schools. The national network KIPP is one charter network looking at possible suburban locations, though KIPP leadership won’t make a decision until this summer about where and didn’t submit a letter of intent to Aurora this round.

Here is a look at each of the five proposed schools with links to their letters of intent: