Families’ access to interpreters in schools expands under new WA laws

School districts have a hodgepodge of policies across the state, which means there are no uniform policies on providing equitable language access to parents and guardians. In some cases, that meant it was the students’ responsibility to interpret for their parents, Perez said.

“So parents were frustrated because their kids were being left behind, [the parents] were not included,” Perez said.

Perez said a parent connected to Open Doors asked her child’s South Puget Sound school for an IEP Spanish translation so she could better advocate at the annual school meeting that determined the school plan. her child’s learning for the year.

“It dictates the whole educational plan for the child,” Perez said. “And then the principal of the school told him, ‘Look, this is America. English, English, English.’ ”

But after citing state and federal laws, including civil rights laws, the parent — who had taken advocacy training offered by Open Doors — contacted the superintendent, who made sure the district told him. handed in a translation of her child’s documents. Perez said it shouldn’t be about threatening a lawsuit to get parents what they need to understand decisions that affect their children.

The new law requires school districts to create plans to help families access interpreter services for parents when they need to speak with school officials. School districts should also have staff dedicated to coordinating access to translation services in schools with a high percentage of English language learners. The state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction will also work with the Professional Educator Standards Council to establish best practices in the training of interpreters working in education.

It would also establish statewide requirements and credentials for language interpreters in schools, similar to the written and oral tests and continuing education already required to translate for courts, social services and hospitals. . The new law also aims to limit the use of untrained people in schools to serve as interpreters.

Kisa Hendrickson, engagement and partnerships manager at Highline Public Schools in Burien, said the law won’t change much for the district, where language access has long been a priority for schools serving an area in which approximately 99 home languages ​​are spoken. But the law gives visibility and teeth to the idea of ​​language access for all families, she said.

Supporters say Highline has been an example of how to provide language access to families and students. In addition to employing two language interpreters as district staff and having numerous bilingual educators and paraeducators, the district uses technology to translate content on its website into more than a dozen languages. District officials also recently set up a hotline for all Highline schools to access an on-call interpreter.

Highline’s in-house interpreters and bilingual staff have facilitated 1,500 events and public meetings so far this school year. Bilingual staff members must pass a test in order to be called upon to facilitate language interpretation.

“For us, it’s really broader than the families of students with disabilities. It’s a family’s right to be involved in their students’ education, so they can navigate and advocate, and it’s our job to overcome barriers,” Hendrickson said. She said the district has also focused on hiring bilingual staff, especially in its most widely used non-English languages: Spanish, Somali, Vietnamese and Amharic.

These barriers are not always solely linguistic, particularly when dealing with students in the special education system, which has specific legal protocols.

“A parent might be with a group of experts in a room — maybe the barrier isn’t a language barrier. Maybe it’s the fact that people are using edu-speak,” Hendrickson said.

However, she added that while Highline has been able to embed a culture of inclusion for many years, the district – which has 17,000 students and 35 schools – also has advantages of scale compared to a smaller district with a budget. and a more limited staff.

Lita O’Donnell, Highline’s director of family and community partnerships, said while the new law won’t functionally change school district practices, it’s good news that some of those practices will become uniform across the state. . This can help families get consistent services no matter where they live in Washington.

“A lot of our families at Highline don’t always stay at Highline,” she said.

Emily Fung, coordinator of the Open Doors for Multicultural Families program, considers the new law a victory, but said language isn’t the only cultural challenge in navigating school districts. Black and Native American families, for example, don’t always have a language barrier that a Latino immigrant family might face, but they can still face challenges when dealing with district administrators and teachers. who lack cultural competence.

“One culture does not face the same challenges as another,” she said.

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