Lost in Translation

‘One-way street’ for immigrant integration in schools

PHOTO: Charlie Nye / The Star
Cruz Tapia joins in a discussion among members of the United Northwest club about a documentary video on diversity during an after-school meeting at Northwest High School in Indianapolis. To his right is Maria Ulloa-Loza. Claudia Montes (left) is the college and career readiness adviser for English learners.

During his first week of school in the United States, fifth-grader Cruz Tapia climbed to the top of the slide on the playground.

Just being in school was part of the promise that America represented to his Mexican family. Like so many others, his family moved here to chase a vision of a better life, free of fear and filled with boundless opportunities.

In America, Tapia wouldn’t have to pass gangs with guns on every street corner. In America, he and his sister could attend school, instead of one having to work to afford the other’s education.

But when he went down the slide that day at recess, what awaited him at the bottom was a reminder that America, too, can have its own set of hostilities and challenges for immigrants.

What awaited him also made him think his family wouldn’t last long here.

Three of his classmates shoved him to the ground. “Go back to your country,” they told him. “You don’t belong here.”

Tapia couldn’t speak English, couldn’t read it, couldn’t understand it — like thousands of other immigrant children who have come to Indianapolis from across the world over the past two decades.

He felt as though teachers didn’t want to teach him. He sat in front of a computer trying to learn English every morning until lunch, went to gym class and then returned to the same classroom to sit in front of the computer again.

Lost in school, he asked other Mexican students for help in Spanish. They ignored him.

“What makes them belong here?” he wondered to himself. “And what makes me not belong here?”

Schools pour resources into programs for English language learners. They hand out backpacks filled with school supplies. They train teachers to better instruct non-native speakers. They hire interpreters.

But experts say something else — something that might ease the transition of immigrant students in America, something that might help tamp down prejudices and bridge hateful divides — is too often overlooked.

That missing piece, they say, is teaching their U.S.-born and bred classmates to understand, empathize and welcome their immigrant classmates, to develop what is called “cultural competency.”

“That’s one that we probably need to do a better job of, honestly,” said Jessica Feeser, who coordinates Indianapolis Public Schools’ programs for students learning English as a new language.


Since 2006, Indiana has gained tens of thousands of immigrant students. Out of 1 million students in Indiana’s public schools last year, more than 53,000 were classified as English language learners — which understates immigrant enrollment, because it doesn’t include students who have mastered English skills since their arrival.

“Our English learners are just as important as any other student in the classroom,” Feeser said. “It’s our obligation to make sure we’re meeting their needs.”

To show what diversity at the school looks like through their eyes, students in the United Northwest International Club at Northwest High School have been working after school to film a documentary for IPS administrators.

With the help of the Latino Youth Collective, they have interviewed one another, fellow students and teachers: What does diversity mean? Where are you from? Do you think people treat others differently because of what they look like?

Northwest sophomore Irwin Fernandez thinks he knows why other students treat him differently.

“Probably because they hate us,” the 16-year-old said.

His uncle told him what Americans think of Mexicans: “We’re taking their jobs, we’re taking their place, we’re taking their money.”

But his relatives in Mexico look up to Fernandez as the first in the family to go to the U.S. to earn his education — and he wants to do well in school to make them proud.

“Keep it up,” they tell him. “Don’t get in trouble.”

That can be a challenge when immigrant students say they feel like they’re often prodded and provoked by their classmates. At its worst, the ignorance of other students seems malicious. But even if it’s unintended, it can still feel constantly irritating.

“This morning, somebody asked me, ‘Do you have potatoes in Africa?’ ” said Northwest senior Mariam Sylla, 19, from Guinea. “I said ‘no’ because his question was stupid.”

Of course there are potatoes in Africa. But she grows tired of all the questions from so many people who don’t seem to know much about her country — often not knowing where it is, or that it even exists.

Are you Jamaican? Are you Nigerian? Do you wear clothes in Africa? Do you live in a jungle? Have you seen a lion?

“Everybody thought Africa was a zoo,” Sylla said.

Our prejudices and biases often surface — along with our curiosities — when we ask questions about how an immigrant’s national and ethnic origins are different from our own, said Rachel Peric, deputy director of Welcoming America, a national network that fosters integration between U.S.-born and foreign-born Americans.

“All of us have biases and things that we have heard that are incorrect and often hurtful,” she said, “But the question is, are we working to overcome those biases and to approach people with love?

“Or,” Peric said, “is the desire to hurt and insult someone?”

Communities should strive to actively welcome — not just tolerate — immigrant students, she said.

“For a long time, in general, we’ve approached immigrant integration as a one-way street, so a lot of the onus has been put on newcomers to adapt,” she said.

Northwest senior Moji Olorode, a 17-year-old from Nigeria, has learned to ignore the bullies who tell her to go back to her country — yes, she’s heard that, too — because, she said, they stop when you don’t pay attention to them. They’ll keep at it if you retaliate.

She also firmly rejects the idea that she should have to change who she is to fit in here.

“Since you’re no longer in your country, most people want you to blend into the cultures here,” she said, “And it just isn’t right. Being African makes me proud.”

For these Northwest students, time seems to have eased the culture clashes. They found friends, mix their own languages with English and speak in American slang. They dream of going to college.

For Tapia, it has been eight years since he was confronted at the bottom of the playground slide. He is now 18 and a senior at Northwest.

Coming to America — and everything he has endured with that — has made him grow up faster, he said. He now sees the world as having two types of people: those who want to help you, and those who want to harm you.

“We didn’t make the decision to come here,” he said. “They don’t know what you had to do to come here, or what you have to do to stay here. They don’t know what it’s like to work twice as hard to learn the language.”

America still represents opportunity, but the glossy vision is sanded down a little. Life is better but still bumpy.

After he graduates from high school this year, Tapia plans to enlist in the military. Maybe, he thinks, people will see him differently when he’s fighting for this country.

This story was produced in collaboration with the Indianapolis Star. Stephanie Wang is a reporter for the Star. Contact her at stephanie.wang@indystar.com.

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Thanks to LUNA for providing the translation for this series.

‘Calle de un solo sentido’ para la integración inmigrante en escuelas

Las escuelas se enfocan en aprendices de Ingles pero, seguido pasan por alto la falta de entendimiento cultural de sus compañeros de clase nacidos en EU.

Durante su primer semana de escuela en los Estados Unidos, Cruz Tapia alumna de quinto grado escaló a la cima del resbaladero en el campo de juegos.

El tan solo iniciar escuela fue parte de la promesa que América representó para esta familia Mexicana. Como muchas otras, su familia se mudó aquí para perseguir una visión de una mejor vida, libre de miedos y llena de oportunidades sin límites.

En América, Tapia no tenía que pasar a gangas con pistolas en cada esquina. En América, él y su hermana podían ir a la escuela, en lugar de tener que trabajar para poder costear la educación del otro.

Pero cuando se resbaló ese día durante el recreo, lo que le esperaba abajo era un recordatorio que américa también puede tener sus propias hostilidades y retos para inmigrantes.

Lo que le esperaba también le hizo pensar que su familia no iba a durar mucho aquí.

Tres de sus compañeros de clase lo empujaron al suelo. “Regrésate a tu país,” le dijeron. “No perteneces aquí.”

Tapia no podía hablar inglés, no podía leerlo, no podía entenderlo – como miles de otros niños inmigrantes que han venido a Indianapolis de todas partes del mundo desde las dos últimas décadas.

El sentía como que los maestros no querían enseñarle. Se sentaba frente a un computador todas las mañanas, hasta la hora del almuerzo, intentando aprender inglés, iba a clase de educación física y regresaba al mismo salón para sentarse nuevamente frente al computador.

Perdido en la escuela, les pedía ayuda a otros niños Mexicanos en Español. Lo ignoraban.

“Que es lo que a ellos los hace pertenecer aquí?” se preguntaba asimismo. “Y que es lo que a mí no me hace pertenecer aquí?”

Las escuelas derramaron recursos en programas para aprendices del idioma Ingles. Repartieron mochilas llenas con útiles escolares. Entrenaron a maestros para mejor instruir a los no-nativo hablantes. Contrataron intérpretes.

Pero los expertos dicen algo mas – algo que pudiera facilitar la transición de estudiantes inmigrantes a América, algo que pudiera ayudar apisonar prejuicios y superar las divisiones de odio – es muy seguido pasado por alto.

Esa pieza faltante, ellos dices, es enseñar a sus nacidos y criados en E.U. a entender, empatizar y dar bienvenida a sus compañeros de clase inmigrantes, a desarrollar lo que se llama “aptitud cultural.”

“Esa es una en las cuales probablemente necesitamos hacer un mejor trabajo, honestamente,” Jessica Feeser dijo, la que coordina los programas de las Escuelas Públicas de Indianapolis para estudiantes que están aprendiendo el inglés como un nuevo idioma.

Desde 2006, Indiana ha aumentado miles de estudiantes inmigrantes. Del 1 millón de estudiantes en las escuelas públicas de Indiana el año pasado, más de 53,000 fueron clasificados como aprendices del idioma Ingles – lo cual subestima la inscripción de inmigrantes porque no incluye los estudiantes que han dominado las habilidades de Ingles desde su llegada.

“Nuestros aprendices de inglés son tan importantes como cualquier otro estudiante en el salón,” dijo Feeser. “Es nuestra obligación asegurarnos que estamos satisfaciendo sus necesidades.”

Para demostrar como la diversidad en la escuela se mira a través de sus ojos, los estudiantes del Club Internacional de los Estados del Noroeste de la Preparatoria Northwest han estado trabajando, después de escuela, en filmar un documental para los administradores de las Escuelas Públicas de Indianapolis (IPS por sus siglas en inglés)

Con la ayuda del Colectivo de Jóvenes Latinos, se han entrevistado el uno al otro, compañeros de trabajo y maestros: Que significa la diversidad? De dónde eres? Crees que las personas tratan a otros de diferente forma por como se miran?

El estudiante de segundo año de Northwest, Irwin Fernández, cree saber por qué otros estudiantes lo tratan diferente. “Probablemente porque nos odian,” dijo el de 16 años de edad.

Su tío le dijo lo que los americanos piensan de los mexicanos: “Les estamos quitando sus trabajos, les estamos quitando su lugar, estamos tomando su dinero.”

Pero sus familiares en México admiran a Fernández por ser el primero en su familia al ir a los E.U. para obtener su educación – y quiere salir bien en la escuela para hacerles orgullosos.

“Sigue adelante,” le dicen. “No te metas en problemas.”

Esto puede ser un reto ya que los estudiantes inmigrantes dicen que se siente muy seguido que son molestados y provocados por sus compañeros de clase. En su peor momento, la ignorancia de otros estudiantes se mira sospechosa. Pero aunque se no intencional, puede sentirse constantemente irritante.

“Esta mañana, alguien me preguntó, ‘Tiene papas en África?” Mariam Sylla, de 19 años, de Guinea, estudiante de cuarto grado de Northwest dijo. “Yo dije ‘no’ porque su pregunta era estúpida.”

Claro que hay papas en África. Pero ella ya está cansada de todas las preguntas de tantas personas que parecen no saber mucho acerca de su país – seguido no saben dónde está, o que siquiera existe.

Eres de Jamaica? Eres de Nigeria? Usas ropa en África? Vives en la selva? Has visto un león?

“Todos piensan que África es un zoológico,” dijo Sylla.

Nuestros prejuicios a menudo salen a la superficie – junto con nuestra curiosidad – cuando preguntamos acerca de cómo los origines nacionales y étnicos de un inmigrante son diferentes a los nuestros, dijo Rachel Peric, directora delegada de Bienvenida América, una red nacional que fomenta la integración entre americanos nacidos en E.U. y extranjeros.

“”Todos tenemos prejuicios y cosas que hemos escuchado que son incorrectas y a veces hirientes,” ella dijo, “pero la pregunta es, estamos trabajando para sobrepasar esos prejuicios y acercarnos a las personas con amor?”

“O,” dijo Peric, “es el deseo de herir e insultar a alguien?”

Las comunidades deben de esforzarse en dar una viva bienvenida – no solo tolerar – a estudiantes inmigrantes, ella dijo.

“Por mucho tiempo, en general, nos hemos acercado a la integración de inmigrantes como una calle de un solo sentido, entonces mucha de la carga se ha puesto en que se adapten los recién llegados,” ella dijo.

La estudiante de cuarto grado de Northwest, Moji Olorode, una chica de 17 años de edad de Nigeria, ha aprendido a ignorar a los intimidantes (bullies) quienes le dicen que se regrese a su país – sí, ella también ha escuchado eso – porque ellos paran cuando uno no les hace caso. Ellos siguen haciéndolo si tú te desquitas.

Ella también rechaza firmemente la idea de que tienes que cambiar quien es para poder encajar.

“Ya que no estás en tu país, la mayoría de la gente quiere que te mezcles dentro de las culturas de aquí, y eso, simplemente no es correcto. Ser Africana me hace sentir orgullosa.”

Para estos estudiantes de Northwest, el tiempo parece haber facilitado el choque de culturas. Encontraron amigos, mezclaron sus propios idiomas con el inglés y hablan caló americano (jerga). Sueñan con ir al colegio.

Para Tapia, han sido 8 años desde cuando fue confrontado al final del resbaladero del área de juegos. Ahora tiene 18 años y es un estudiante de cuarto grado de Northwest.

Venir a América – y todo con lo que ha tenido que lidiar – lo ha hecho madurar más rápido. Ahora ve que el mundo tiene dos tipos de personas: aquellos que te quieren ayudar y aquellos que te quieren hacer daño.

“No tomamos la decisión de venir aquí. Ellos no saben lo que tuviste que hacer para venir aquí, o lo que tienes que hacer para poder quedarte aquí. Ellos no saben lo que es trabajar el doble de duro para aprender el idioma.”

América sigue representado oportunidad, pero la visión lustrosa está lijada un poco. La vida es mejor pero aun con topes.

Este año, después de que se gradúe de la preparatoria, Tapia planea enlistarse en el militar. Talvez el piensa, que las personas lo verán de diferente forma cuando esté peleando por este país.

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.”


In Aurora, a math teacher led the way to offer students a seal of biliteracy

Picture of recipients of the seal of biliteracy at their 2018 graduation from Aurora Central High School. (Photo courtesy of Aurora Public Schools)

Aurora math teacher Susan Holloway was fired up when Colorado last year created a new recognition for multilingual students.

But few new districts have taken on the work. Aurora isn’t yet offering the new seal of biliteracy. So Holloway took it upon herself to help 15 seniors at her school win the recognition.

The point was to “acknowledge those scholars” at Aurora Central High School, Holloway said. “We knew we had them, we just had to find them.”

Officials from three districts that pioneered the work to recognize biliteracy before the state passed the law touted one of the big benefits of a seal of biliteracy was its potential to transform a perception of students who speak English as a second language. Rather than being seen as deficient or lagging, they can be recognized for possessing an additional asset — and in becoming literate in English and another language, they actually have more to offer.

Districts that have been doing the work the longest, in Denver, Adams 14 and Eagle, worked to create pathways to prepare students from a young age to reach a high level of fluency in two languages. Holloway said she knows that even if her school lacks those pathways, it had more than 15 students who are biliterate.

By the numbers: 2018 graduates with seal of biliteracy:
  • Aurora, 15
  • Denver, 893
  • Eagle, 36 (another 178 fifth and eighth graders earned a district biliteracy certificate)
  • Adams 14, 68

But for last school year she set out to find those who were closest to already meeting the requirements of the seal.

Holloway set up criteria and took a day off from class to dig through student data among those students who were high performing in reading and writing. One of the requirements to earn the seal as an addition to the high school diploma is demonstration of proficiency in English.

Holloway worked with an assistant principal and a district administrator to find a test for literacy and fluency in Spanish, which the school was able to purchase. Every one of the students who took the Spanish test passed it.

“I was really fired up to make it happen,” said Holloway. “It just took someone who kind of had the big picture of what was required. I just pushed on until it happened.”

As a board member for the Colorado Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Holloway had also helped push for the seal of biliteracy through the Legislature.

Holloway’s district, Aurora Public Schools, is one of the most diverse in the state, serving students with a background in more than 160 languages.

A district official who helped Holloway’s work at Aurora Central did not respond to requests for comment, but a spokesman said in writing that it was too soon to talk about district level plans.

“Changing direction — that just takes a while,” Holloway said. “The next step for all schools would be to make sure their language departments are whole and strong. For people who are already native speakers, the counselors need to be educated to say you should take that class. We have to have the systems in place.”

For now Holloway said all she can do in Aurora is to continue providing information to students and to other educators who might be interested.

Elsewhere, just a handful of other educators are moving ahead. Officials in the Greeley-Evans school district are in the early stages of plans to offer the seal, but Brian Lemos, the director of instruction and English language development talked about why his district is interested, and how he hoped they might be able to start.

“We have multiple students that are bilingual and we really feel that that’s an asset, so we need to be able to honor that asset,” Lemos said.

Lemos said that changes in district leadership and other priorities have caused delays, but he’s expecting arrangements will start coming together more this year.

“Now we’re really thinking about what does it mean and how do we start getting students on that track,” Lemos said. He is analyzing which students are taking what classes to see how many could already meet the minimum requirements.

If Greeley does move forward, Lemos also wants to make sure students and families understand early on the requirements and the benefits of pursuing the credential.

In Eagle County Schools, one of the three districts that began offering the seal in 2015, officials say they are hearing anecdotally that students who have already earned the seal have seen benefits.

“Students have said that the seal has been a huge part of helping them to stand out in applications and getting interviews (for many different things),” said Jessica Martinez, the district’s Director of Multilingual Education. “We have had students comment that they thought that having the seal was one of the biggest reasons they got a job, and that employers are very interested in the seal when they interview.”

Some of the other benefits have been slow to materialize. Officials had hoped colleges might recognize the seal to help place students higher in language courses, or that students might be able to use it to fulfill language requirements.

“Our understanding is that there are so few districts who are using this so far, that it hasn’t yet gained the attention of colleges yet,” said a spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Higher Education.

Holloway’s hopes for her students are simpler.

“I hope, No. 1, that it allows them to know just how good they are, she said. “This is above the high school level. It’s an advanced level of proficiency. I hope it invites them to participate in our world and I hope it helps to get them a job and that they take that whole understanding of their global citizenship with them.”