Luis F. Suarez charts the legal developments in translation and interpretation requirements at public schools
This article provides a summary of legal developments that have established precedents for current federal requirements to provide translation and interpretation services to students, parents, teachers and staff at public schools. The article also presents examples of specific tasks that translators and interpreters typically provide in order to facilitate communications between parents and school staff.
To make certain there’s no confusion, let’s clarify a common misunderstanding regarding the definitions of interpretation and translation. Interpretation is the process of converting a verbal communication message from one language into another language; translation is the process of converting a written message into a written message in a second language. Interpretation can be simultaneous — when the process is done while the source speaker continues talking- or consecutive – when the source speaker pauses while the interpreter renders the message into the target language. The objective is to facilitate the communication process by rendering messages that transmit similar information and nuances of the language. Translation allows more time for the written language conversion process while interpretation puts an intense time pressure on the interpreter to deliver the verbal message in the target language.
The requirements to provide translation and interpretation services at public schools originate as a consequence of federal regulations that prohibit national origin discrimination. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 states that: “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” A clarification of specific obligations with an emphasis on the need for services to those with limited English proficiency (LEP) was promulgated through Executive Order 13166, “Improving Access to Services for Persons with Limited English Proficiency,” by President Clinton in August 2000. This Executive Order “….requires Federal agencies to examine the services they provide, identify any need for services to those with limited English proficiency (LEP), and develop and implement a system to provide those services so LEP persons can have meaningful access to them.” The previous two federal requirements apply to all federal agencies and thus cover the Department of Education and students attending public schools.
Additionally, there are several mandates that focus specifically on requirements for public schools. The Director of the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare issued what is known as the 1970 Memorandum in response to assessments of non-compliance with requirements of non-discrimination on the basis of national origin in particularly large school districts with large student populations with Hispanic surnames. This memorandum clarified the requirements of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act regarding public schools’ obligation to provide equal educational opportunities to all children regardless of national origin or language. Of particular interest to the translation and interpretation services community is the statement that “…School districts have the responsibility to adequately notify national origin-minority group parents of school activities which are called to the attention of other parents. Such notice in order to be adequate may have to be provided in a language other than English.” This memorandum also requires that schools take affirmative steps to rectify language deficiencies in cases where the inability to speak and understand English language excludes national origin-minority group children from effective participation in the school’s educational programs.
The U.S. Supreme Court in Lau vs. Nichols (1974) reiterated the validity of the 1970 Memorandum requirements and its interpretation of the requirements of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and it further stated that schools must provide a “meaningful education.” Thus, schools must provide language support to those students who are not proficient in English.
More recently, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 requires that specific information be provided to the extent practicable, in a language that parents can understand. Information to be provided includes: achievement on academic assessments, annual state and local educational agency report cards, Parent’s Right-to-Know information, schools’ Title 1 Plan, if the school is identified for “school improvement” and its implications, availability of supplemental educational services, parents involvement information, information about reasons a child is identified as Limited English proficient and options available to improve the student’s English language proficiency.
In December 2010, the School District of Philadelphia reached a settlement with the U.S. Justice Department regarding harassment and discrimination issues against Asian students. The settlement requires the School district to provide interpretation and translation services to immigrant students and their families, develop and implement anti-harassment policies, improve multiculturalism and diversity programs, and develop safety and emergency response plans.
This settlement was followed by a Memorandum from the Attorney General in February 2011 which restates the obligation for all government agencies to comply with Executive Order 13166 of 2000 which required all federal agencies to “develop and implement a system by which limited-English-proficient (LEP) persons can meaningfully access the agency’s services,” and requires all government agencies to establish a language-access working group.
Examples of typical services to facilitate communication between staff and parents include translation of:
• Periodic newsletters from classroom teachers to parents reporting on class academic progress and classroom planned activities
• Progress report cards and comments on individual student academic performance and behavior
• Monthly newsletter to parents from school principal
• Bulletins and general interest announcements to school community
• Posters and bulletins for internal display within school facilities
Additionally, providing interpretation services during the following activities will facilitate communications and improve parent involvement in the children’s education:
• Parent-teacher conference meetings to discuss periodic student academic performance and behavior
• Individualized Educational Program (IEP), Student Assistance Team (SAT) and Title I meetings
• Telephone calls to parents to report academic progress as well as disciplinary issues
• Meetings and formal hearings with school staff and parents regarding disciplinary issues
• Special school programs to celebrate school and community diversity such as December Holidays celebration, ethnic/cultural celebrations
• Periodic activities and programs to enhance parents and community participation such as Math nights, Science and Invention Fair nights
• Visits to the school by parents
• Language, Occupational or health interventions to limited-English-proficient students
• Language accommodations during regular performance assessments and state mandated testing
The overall responsibility of the translator/interpreter is to be a resource to school staff, parents and students, to validate the language and culture of the minority group, and to act as a role model to the students regarding bilingual capabilities and opportunities. Implementation of an effective translator/interpretation program at the school will not only facilitate compliance with the law but will also improve participation of the parents in the children’s education process and will create a positive impact on the students academic and behavioral performance.
Luis F. Suarez, P.E., MBA, PMP has over 20 years experience in management consulting, project management and business operations. He has designed financial and operational project controls for large capital programs and has successfully managed businesses offering engineering/manufacturing operations.Suarez spent one year working as translator and interpretation staff at a charter school in a predominantly Spanish speaking neighborhood in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He earned masters degrees in engineering and business administration and has completed partial coursework towards a masters in education. He lives in Albuquerque with his wife and two sons.