Lost in Translation

10 inspiring minutes on education, freedom and the American dream

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Elly Mawi expressed her gratitude for her teachers at Chalkbeat and WFYI's recent Conversation about Education focused on English language learners.

Chalkbeat’s recent series, Lost In Translation, jointly published with the Indianapolis Star and WFYI Public Media, aimed to shed light on the challenges schools face to help English language learners, especially those newly arrived from other countries, thrive.

But helping immigrant children at school also requires understanding their lives before coming to the United States and their broader experiences as newcomers to Indiana.

For Indianapolis, one of the biggest and fastest-growing immigrant student groups is children from Burma.

Last week, Chalkbeat brought together four people who shared their stories in the series for a panel discussion at the Central Library. For the full conversation, go here. But, thanks to WFYI, you can now view a 10-minute highlight video (below).

Be prepared to be moved.

Two of the panelists, May Oo Mutraw and and Elly Mawi, spoke passionately about the hardships Burmese families have in Indiana.

Most of them, Mutraw said, were fleeing a 66-year civil war that upended their lives.

“They lived literally in the war zone, said Mutraw, founder of Indianapolis’ Burmese Community Center for Education. “Their villages were burned down. They fled into the forest.”

Schooling, she said, was also a casualty.

“We are talking about a generation who did not get to go to school — the whole generation,” she said.

But in Indiana, with the help of public schools, they had an opportunity for a much better future. They understand the American dream.

“I personally always believed that through education we can liberate ourselves,” Mutraw said. “Education, for me and for my family, is a practice of freedom.”

Mawi, a top student graduating this year from Perry Township’s Southport High School, once sat on a dirt floor to learn from volunteer teachers in a refugee camp in Malaysia, said even in her community people don’t realize what many Burmese children have been through.

“We come here in the first place because we are at the line of life and death,” she said. “It’s whether you die or if you fight and you escape.”

Mawi praised Southport as a great place for English language learners and Perry Township as welcoming. But still, even there, not everyone understands how common her story is.

“A lot of times, people think the reason we come here is because of greed,” she said. “We get a lot of misunderstanding for that.”

Near the end of the event, Mawi turned to the audience to praise her teachers, several of whom were in the audience.

Some of them were moved to tears.

“This week is Teacher Appreciation Week, but not just this every day,” she said. “If you are a teacher sitting here tonight, or watching on live stream, thank you for what you have done.”

Mawi then addressed English as a new language teachers directly.

“As an ENL student … we thank you,” she said. “We love you. You make a difference. You might not get enough praise or enough pay or enough credit for what you have done. But you are making a difference every day in our lives.”

Teachers who have more challenges in the classroom, like helping kids learn to speak English, should be judged less harshly if test scores take time to catch up to their peers, she said.

“You are the unsung heroes of our society and community,” Mawi said, turning back toward the teachers. “We love you and thank you.”

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.”





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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.”