MAGAZINE FEATURE

Language Access: More Than Translation

School districts in Washington state illustrate the power of making language access foundational—not an add-on.
Illustration by Peter and Maria Hoey

As a professional interpreter and parent organizer in South King County, Washington, Maricela Rodriguez often hears from parents about the challenges they face. When schools began distance learning in March 2020, Rodriguez began hearing more and more stories about the gaps in communication between schools and families.

In one typical example, a parent told Rodriguez about a missed parent-teacher conference. She and her child’s teacher had been originally scheduled for a meeting time with an interpreter, but when the virtual meeting before hers went long and the teacher rescheduled, they didn’t include the interpreter in the new meeting.

The pandemic presented new problems, but schools and districts have long needed better strategies for communicating with families in languages other than English. Even in places like South King County, where almost half the students qualify for English language learner (ELL) services at some point in their education, there are gaps. It is critical to close these gaps because ELLs are not problems for districts to manage or minimize—they are core members of school communities.

The Rights Guaranteed to Families

For many years, and still in some places across the United States, students were pressured to act as de facto translators for their parents. Issues of equity and quality remain, despite the legal mandate for schools to provide translation services. Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI) and the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 (EEOA), public schools are required to support ELLs in participating meaningfully and equally. This includes sufficiently staffing ELL programs, avoiding unnecessary segregation of ELLs and providing language assistance.

In Washington state, House Bill 1153 would have increased language access in public schools, but when the bill died in committee, community organizers pivoted to turn the bill into a proviso that was able to pass funding in spring 2021. The proviso will fund the reconvening of a state language access workgroup, as well as direct the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) to establish a language access technical assistance program.

Title VI and EEOA—and some state-level laws—protect emerging English speakers in our schools. But, as with all civil rights legislation, the law provides a floor, not a ceiling.

The pandemic continues to reveal to those in power what communities of color and immigrant communities have always known: that access is about more than information.

“When we were going into distance learning, what shifted was that the whole system was now put in a position where we have to rely on families,” says Kisa Hendrickson, chief engagement and partnership officer at Highline Public Schools (HPS), a district just south of Seattle. “We had to partner with our families to ensure that our students were able to access their education online.”

Teresa Vazquez, an ELL paraeducator in nearby Renton School District (RSD), says, “Last year was incredibly confusing for everyone. And people have needs beyond just academics, so how do we even begin communicating?”

Three resources can make a meaningful difference for families: culturally responsive interpretation and translation, support for families as they navigate the system, and a clear message that the district recognizes language access for families is essential to a child’s education—not a supplement to it.

It's not just about providing and funding interpretation and translation but providing it in a way that is culturally responsive.

— Alexa Villatoro

Providing Culturally Responsive Interpretation and Translation

Alexa Villatoro, a youth organizer with the immigrant rights organization OneAmerica, worked on the campaign for Washington’s HB 1153 along with their partner organization, Open Doors for Multicultural Families. Villatoro believes that providing language access needs to start at the top.

“The language access bill would have required schools to do things that they’re very capable of doing and that they’re responsible for,” she explains, “requiring those culturally responsive strategies for providing interpreters and providing translated material that is extensive, that is thorough. It’s not just about providing and funding interpretation and translation but providing it in a way that is culturally responsive. Oftentimes interpreters and translators are not required to be respectful or mindful of cultural aspects that interfere with education and access.”

Villatoro’s advocacy is driven by her own experiences as a former HPS student and by watching her mom, who teaches a fifth-grade dual-language (Spanish and English) class at Highline’s Mount View Elementary.

“Schools are trying to provide as much access as possible, but ultimately it’s a systemic issue,” she says.

Districts need to consistently assess the language needs of their communities, as well as the effectiveness of their language access services. This means prioritizing systemically equitable family engagement practices and providing guidelines and training so schools know when and how to use multilingual staff or contract interpreters. The pandemic has also highlighted the need for remote interpretation, a resource that can continue to be useful even as students go back to in-person learning.

Illustrated person holding up two speech bubbles.

Centering Language Access

To help overcome some of the most basic barriers to access, Villatoro recommends that districts have designated staff and offices families know they can contact for language access.

“It is really tricky when you go to the school and you don’t know who to talk to, and they throw you to someone else, and that someone throws you to someone else.”

Lita O’Donnell, director of family and community partnerships at HPS, says Highline’s centralized Family Center is a useful starting point. “Families have a place to go where they feel comfortable, where there’s that connection,” she specifies. “Our families have their own cultural capital, in their own communities, where they’re sharing information.”

The district has also built staff positions expressly designed to support families of ELLs, creating the position of bilingual family liaison to prioritize language access. Highline has always employed paraeducators who happened to be bilingual. And, as Kisa Hendrickson explains, many bilingual paraeducators were already doing the work of connecting the school and families “because many of them came from the community. A lot of them were parents. Some of them grew up in the district.”

Creating the official position of bilingual family liaison means staff members aren’t asked to include multilingual family engagement as an add-on, but to center it—and be compensated for it.

When Hendrickson started working in Highline, these positions were paid out of categorical funds, which she believes created the unintentional message that multilingual family engagement is supplemental work.

To change the message, HPS changed the budget so those positions were paid out of basic education dollars, in addition to raising their hourly rates. Today, there are 98 bilingual paraeducators in HPS, and 28 serve as bilingual family liaisons. As these shifts show, any model for change means considering language access services as foundational, not additional, to a district’s mission.

Prior to Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds coming in, Highline’s enrollment had been declining. Declining enrollment means declining budget opportunities. Yet, Hendrickson shares, “no part of our conversations about budget cuts ever included reducing our translation and interpretation budget. It has never been on the table. So while funding for language access may not necessarily increase once ESSER funds go away, it won’t decrease because it’s part of our standard operating procedures.”

We support families because there is a lot of misunderstanding, and it’s not just the language. It’s the system.

— Louis Trujillo

Supporting Families Navigating the System

Students and families need the support of school and district staff who are specifically compensated and structured to use language skills, not just staff who happen to be bilingual. These staff—such as the multilingual family liaisons employed by districts like Highline and neighboring districts Renton and Tukwila—become trusted bridges for communities. They don’t just translate messages; they guide families through the school system.

“We support families because there is a lot of misunderstanding, and it’s not just the language. It’s the system,” says Louis Trujillo, a bilingual family support specialist in Renton School District (RSD).

For instance, RSD uses a hotline for language access, but there’s limited capacity for staff to return calls. “One thing some parents don’t know,” Maricela Rodriguez notes, “is that they might prioritize calling back parents who leave a complete message with details because there are so many calls that go through. So ... relationships with staff like Louis are so important for helping parents know what to expect.”

Rodriguez adds, “I always hear from parents that they really love talking to their bilingual family liaison, especially when the liaison is also from the community and has passion and respect and love for the community.”

Tukwila School District (TSD), a smaller district than Highline or Renton, employs four district-level parent and community liaisons with four different language specializations: Somali, Spanish, Burmese and Nepali. These roles are invaluable, not only because the liaisons give families more access to information about the school system but also because the information flows the other way, too.

“From the schools’ side, they need to learn about our families’ cultures,” asserts Ohn Ohnmar, TSD’s Burmese parent and community liaison, who also speaks Karen and Thai.

Community connections go beyond education. Liaisons help families navigate housing, health care and other basic needs. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, they have also been troubleshooting technology and helping families apply for relief funds.

“Just recently, a student’s family member passed away from COVID-19, and we had to help their family navigate the U.S. funeral system,” says Ohnmar. “We never stop learning together.”

“We can’t just focus on academic support and communicating with families,” adds Tukwila’s Nepali Parent and Community Liaison Binita Dahal. “We try to fill the barriers of their basic needs and have deep relationships.”

Scaling and Systemizing

Vincent Davis, an ELL specialist at RSD’s Highlands Elementary, explains the value of—and the need for—such relationships. “We just need to open the doors for them. One of the best things is when parents really take ownership of the school and the community.”

One way their team has scaled up this work is the Renton Parent University, a 10-week program for parents of ELLs to learn about the U.S. school system. Highlands has been running the Renton Parent University since 2016, and it has continued virtually since the pandemic began.

“The crux of it all is the relationships and the trust built between families and school staff,” says Mickey Dunn, an ELL specialist and family engagement coordinator at Highlands.

Inequities have swelled during the turmoil of the pandemic—but in some places, so have opportunities to advocate for systemic change. One of these changes is pay increases for multilingual staff who use their language skills in addition to their main roles. During the pandemic, Renton has added a 5% pay increase for these staff to honor their substantial contributions.

Another change is language access training for all educators and staff. While this training was accessible before, organizers and community-based groups are now advocating it as a foundational necessity. In a survey conducted by a language access workgroup convened by OSPI and the Office of Education Ombuds, only 27% of district staff and 10% of school staff indicated that they had received training on how to work with interpreters.

Not everyone who works at a school needs to be an ELL expert, but everyone should be familiar with resources they can connect families with—whether that’s asking a multilingual family liaison to reach out, understanding how to prioritize scheduling with a translator or knowing which colleague can best answer a parent’s questions. Technical training on district practices and state policies can equip all school personnel with what they need to support students and families.

This past year, in the midst of the pandemic, HPS adopted an official language access policy. Hendrickson says that while the district has been providing language access for many years, they saw the effects of the pandemic as an opportunity to systemize it. “When the demand for it significantly increased during the pandemic,” Hendrickson says, “we wanted to get it into policy so that there’s no disputing this is what needs to happen.”

“We had our practices and our guidance, and now we have it in policy,” HPS’s Lita O’Donnell points out. “How do we support schools when we get back into, quote-unquote, normal times, when our families will still need to receive information in a language that they understand and that they’ve asked for—so that they can be partners in their child’s education and understand what their child needs to know, and be able to contribute and co-create with their schools? We need to make sure that infrastructure is in place.”

It takes changes in both policy and practice. That’s why it’s critical that educators, families, students and communities advocate for foundational shifts and continue modeling that with each other.

Language access is more than just letting a parent know what their child’s homework is—it’s a bridge built from community, culture and collective care.

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