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Know Your Rights
Source: Brooklyn Downtown Star
Subject: Education Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Advocates: Money Not Translating to Better Service

In February, after a long fight between the mayor and the City Council, $12 million was allocated for translation services to help the immigrant parents of New York City students better understand what was going on with their children’s education. The expensive program was first implemented this September, for the new school year, and according to several watchdog groups, it still has a few kinks.


Dozens of immigrants and their advocates gathered outside Brooklyn’s High School for the Arts in Boerum Hill last Thursday morning to complain about the uneven rollout of these new services. They had come from China via Flushing, Latin America via Bushwick, Russia via Coney Island, and India via Jackson Heights.


"Two weeks ago," recalled Silvia Oreo in Spanish, "I went to a parents meeting at I.S. 383 in Brooklyn. It seemed really interesting. They were doing a presentation describing all the programs the school has, the rules of the school, the graduation rate, and everything the school has. They were presenting something about graduation, about the grade point average that you need to stay in school. That’s what I imagine, because in reality, I didn’t understand much of anything…My son who is 11 was with me. I asked him what they were saying, but he didn’t want to translate. It was really fast and it was hard for him to translate."


While Oreo, who is a member of Make the Road by Walking in Bushwick, said this in front of the cameras, there were three professional translators standing nearby, who had been newly hired by the Department of Education (DOE). All three of them of them spoke French and English, and between they also spoke Arabic, Haitian Creole, and Italian, and they indicated to the Ledger/Star that earlier in the month, when school was just starting, there were other translators present who spoke Chinese and Urdu.


"We do our best," explained Raymonda Samawi, who hails from Lebanon originally, "between the parents and the bureaucrats, helping everybody understand each other." She has been hired on a temporary basis by DOE to staff one of the 15 high school enrollment centers throughout the five boroughs. In addition, all major documents are translated into eight non-English languages at central processing area in Long Island City.


Yet, according to Gisela Alvarez of Advocates for Children of New York, Inc., Samawi and her colleagues at the Boerum Hill enrollment center had been giving out inaccurate information all month. "At this particular regulation center," Alvarez related to the press, "a monitor from Asian Americans for Equality was told that parents who need Chinese translation should go to Manhattan for that service. And no signs were up in Chinese."


"We sent a monitor here," said Margaret Chin of Asian Americans for Equality, "who didn’t speak English well, only Chinese. There were no signs up and they told her to go to Manhattan."


On the morning of the press conference, Chinese signs were up, but Alvarez claimed that happened after they complained. "Things got better," she admitted, "after we told them about it. Our monitors are changing things on the ground, and we hope that continues."


Alvarez’s group, along with the New York Immigrant Coalition and eight other advocacy groups, sent out monitors to 13 of the 15 enrollment centers during the month of September, and discovered that many DOE bureaucrats and temporary translators were not aware of the full extent of the new program. "Our survey revealed," read the report’s conclusion, "that parent coordinators are typically unaware of the new requirements set forth in the regulation."


"It’s not implemented," complained Alvarez, "on the ground level, where it counts." Also, when it counts, she quickly added: "If translated materials and interpretation services are not available to parents, especially during the early part of the school year, then some of our most vulnerable students will fall through the cracks. We call on the Department of Education to follow through with its new regulation and make sure that the problems parents faced this past month will not happen again."


"We fought so hard last year," recalled Oreo, "last year to improve language services for parents in the schools, and I thought things would be different this year, but when I got to my child’s school, nothing had changed."