Catalina Martinez has worked as a factory worker, a housekeeper, and a beauty sales agent in the 14 years since she immigrated to the United States. She is also a mother of four children. “I want them to be everything I couldn’t be,” she says in Spanish.
So, she tries to be actively involved in her children’s schooling. But she finds this nearly impossible, because she doesn’t speak English. When she has to speak to a teacher or take care of a simple situation at the school, she has to enlist a busy friend, or recruit her daughter, who then has to skip classes. Once, when she went to a parent association meeting at I.S. 93 in Ridgewood, Queens for her 13-year-old son, she sat quietly in the back of the room for over an hour, unable to understand what the principal was saying, and unable to participate in the planning discussions with the other parents.
Martinez has taken several adult English language classes, but it didn’t stick; her work schedule has been so demanding that she couldn’t devote the time she would have liked. She takes responsibility for this lapse, she says, and hopes finally to become fluent in the future. At the same time, though, she doesn’t see why her children — or anybody else’s children — should suffer.
Every day, many thousands of parents with limited English are unable to communicate with school officials and to act on their desire to make a difference in their children’s future. This shouldn’t be such a surprise in a school system where about 500,000 students (around 43 percent of the entire student population) come from homes where English is not the primary language.
For years, immigrant advocates have fought for legislation to ensure that public schools provide translation and interpretation services for parents with limited English. A billed called the Education Equity Act, or Intro 464-A, would spur the Department of Education to provide interpretation services at large events and at meetings where at least ten percent of the expected attendees don’t speak English. It would also compel the department to make certain documents intended for parents, such as report cards and important notices, available in the nine most common languages citywide.
The City Council voted 35 to 11 to pass the Education Equity Act in December, but Mayor Michael Bloomberg vetoed the bill on January 19th, arguing that the Department of Education is already doing enough to provide access to interpretation and translation services, and that only the state - not the City Council - may legislate on educational matters.
In a letter the mayor wrote to the city clerk explaining his veto, he wrote that both the Department of Education and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein “have gone to great lengths to fulfill our strong commitment to providing parents and guardians who do not speak English with critical information about education-related matters in languages the parents and guardians can understand.” The department has a Translation and Interpretation Unit and last year “committed $10.2 million to the provision of associated services.” But, unlike the Education Equity Act, the Department of Education, Bloomberg wrote, “has left the expenditure of almost half that money to the discretion of the principals to ensure that funds are spent in the most effective way possible.”
The bill’s supporters acknowledge that the mayor and the chancellor have taken steps to address language barriers, but argue that translation and interpretation services are not reaching parents where they need them the most - in the schools.
Since the beginning of the school year in September, my organization, The New York Immigration Coalition (Make the Road by Walking is a coalition member), and our partner advocates have visited or called more than 300 schools. We have found that many parent coordinators, as well as other school staff who interact with parents, are unaware of the supplemental funds their schools have received to translate documents and provide interpretation services at meetings. A large majority of these schools failed to provide bilingual staff or interpreters during orientation sessions.
Parents should not be kept in the dark about their children’s education. The stakes are too high. Immigrant and English-language-learner students have one of the highest dropout rates in New York City. To turn things around, our schools must be able to communicate and work with immigrant parents, and the Education Equity Act would help make that possible.
The City Council is expected to vote on whether to override the mayor’s veto at its next Stated Meeting on February 15th.Deycy Avitia is an education policy associate with The New York Immigration Coalition.