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Language Lessons: Latino families finding disconnect with school communications

"They're eager and want to be involved."

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In the time since Raquel Castillo began volunteering at the Latino Family Center and getting to know other Latino parents in the Pittsburgh Public School District, she's heard a common concern.

"A lot of the schools do not have the notes, [event] flyers and newsletters that are sent home translated," says Castillo, who is raising three grandchildren in the district. "By the time they come in to have us translate them, the meeting or event that's going on in the school has already passed."

Last year, Castillo and others in Pittsburgh's growing Latino community came together to form Latino Parents United in Action, an organization designed to increase Latino parent involvement in the district. The group has grown to include more than 20 families, but the language barrier is proving difficult to overcome.

Of the 25,900 students enrolled in the district, there are approximately 850 English as a second language (ESL) students and Spanish is the second most commonly used language among them. (Nepali is the most common). In 2012 there were 630 ESL students, showing a sharp increase in just two years.

"In terms of translation and interpretation services, more schools are becoming aware of the need to provide this support to families as the district is becoming more linguistically diverse," says district spokesperson Ebony Pugh.

But some of the parents say they often don't feel engaged in their children's education because when they attend events, they can't always understand what's being said and some of the materials they receive from the school aren't translated.

"They're eager and want to be involved," says Amie Matson, an organizer with advocacy organization A+ Schools who leads the parent group. "I definitely am seeing some materials that are available in Spanish but those last-minute notes — if the school nurse is going to be checking eyes in the next week—those are the ones that aren't translated."

Translation efforts vary from school to school says Matson, but some materials produced by schools and teachers, like flyers inviting parents to attend upcoming meetings at school or letting them know about medical checkups, are often not translated. And the district says they don't send out translated report cards. Alternatively, materials produced by the district such as school handbooks for elementary schools Concord, Beechwood, Colfax, Greenfield, Banksville, Arsenal and South Hills, and Allderdice High School are translated to Spanish.

"Based on the growth we are seeing in the District we are currently reviewing how we disseminate report cards to linguistically diverse families," Pugh says. "You can currently find on our [ESL] website district policies, information about schools, school handbooks, etc. in various languages, including Spanish."

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, "communication with parents must be in the parent's preferred language and mode of communication." Schools are also required to provide translation and interpretation services to parents.

"With my experience with individuals in the group, parents are saying it's not happening," Matson says. "I don't know if there's not enough time or if they don't have enough staff to translate things properly."

ESL Director Jonathan Covel says the resources are there for translation and interpretation: His office can translate documents for principals and teachers or send a translator to events. And both Beechview and Concord elementary schools have Spanish-speaking staff. But he's working to make sure teachers and principals know these resources are available and take advantage of them more often.

"We encourage all schools to forward documents to our office because that's an incredibly important access point to make sure parents are involved in their student's education," Covel says.

The district says it's been working with schools to identify families in need of translation services.

"Schools that don't have an ESL program may not be aware that parents, whose kids don't need ESL services, can benefit from translators and interpreters," says Pugh.

Part of ensuring families receive the help they need means making sure school staff know the parents of the students they serve. On Aug. 20, in collaboration with A+ Schools and the Latino Family Center, the district gave Latino parents the opportunity to meet with principals and staff from their children's school.

"As we're getting more Spanish-speaking families in our district, we're looking for different ways to make sure our parents are engaged," Covel says.

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