Schools take aim at ‘invisible wall’ to help non-English-speaking parents
BY SUSAN DEMAR LAFFERTY firstname.lastname@example.org October 7, 2012 6:46PM
Eisenhower High School student Jose Robles helps translate for his parents, Jose and Maria, during parent-teacher conferences at the school in Blue Island Thursday, September 27, 2012. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 9, 2012 6:05AM
When it’s time for parent-teacher conferences at Eisenhower High School, seniors Jose Robles and Roxana Flores speak for their parents, accompanying them and acting as translators as they meet with each teacher.
Their parents don’t speak English, but that hasn’t stopped them from being involved in their children’s education at the Blue Island high school.
Despite the language barrier, Jose and Roxana — who both speak English and Spanish fluently — have been successful in high school and plan to attend college next year. Their support system is in place, obstacles or not.
“It is important I can communicate with the teacher,” said Maria Robles, Jose’s mother, with Jose translating. “My English is not very good, but I am trying. Language is no excuse not to participate or be involved in your child’s education.”
The story is similar at many Southland schools that serve homes where English isn’t the primary language. School staff, volunteers and programs aim to ensure that parents who don’t know the language still are included in plotting out their students’ futures.
Both Roxana and Jose’s mothers said they still can understand what letter grades mean, and they can read teachers’ expressions and body language.
“A lot of students don’t tell parents about conferences, so parents don’t come,” Roxana Flores said. “From what I see, parents are scared. They do not know how it works, so they don’t come.
“I always come with my mother and help her translate. I also go to conferences for my siblings. But if I couldn’t come, she would find someone to translate.”
If students are unable to translate — or for some reason cannot be trusted to translate — parent liaisons, like Amanda Castillo and other bilingual staff members, roam the gym floor where conferences are held, ready and willing to help both parents and teachers.
At Eisenhower, where Hispanic students represent more than 43 percent of the student population, language can be an “invisible wall” between the school and its families, Castillo said.
Castillo, a native of Mexico, said this language barrier is a big issue for “shy” Hispanic parents. As a bilingual parent, she is able to reach through that invisible wall.
But needing translators at conferences is just one of the obstacles non-English-speaking parents face as they try to navigate the school system from registration to the college application process.
As one of two full-time parent liaisons at Eisenhower, Castillo has a goal to help all parents, make them feel that the school wants them there and help them realize they are important to their student’s future achievements.
“They all have different needs, but they all care about their children — no matter what language they speak,” Castillo said.
Some parents don’t admit they can’t speak or understand English, and that can be a concern, Bremen High School Principal David Kibelkis said. More than 36 percent of Bremen students are Hispanic.
Kibelkis recalled talking on the phone to one parent who knew enough to say “Yes,” “OK,” and “Thank you,” but the principal had no idea that the parent could not understand him until later, when Kibelkis spoke with the student.
While the school is doing a better job of identifying and understanding these families, Kibelkis said parents also have to “self-advocate” what they need.
“We will work with them if we know their needs,” he said.
Language barrier, times four
At Stagg High School in Palos Hills, a relatively high number of families speak one of four different languages — Arabic, Polish, Lithuanian or Spanish, according to guidance department director Greg Gornik.
“The best translator is the student, but that has its pitfalls — they may not be accurate,” he said.
The school has staff members who speak Arabic, Spanish, Russian and German, and it also relies on bilingual parent volunteers to assist the faculty or make calls to parents, he said.
For parent conferences, flyers are sent out in four languages, and a voicemail system is set up for multiple languages, he said.
“I think non-English-speaking parents are involved, but it may be limited,” Gornik said. “Are we reaching all families? Likely not, but we continue to try. Teachers try to be proactive, to make an extra effort.”
Stagg parent Abeer Jaber said parents may stay away from events if they think they have to converse.
“They will come if they can just sit and listen, but if there’s talking involved, they may decide not to come unless they have someone who can translate for them,” she said.
That’s where she comes in as a volunteer to translate for Arabic-speaking families.
She remembered how she used to feel “shy” and feared making a mistake with her English, which she now speaks fluently.
“It’s hard for a lot of parents. They want to know exactly what is going on. It’s very important to have translation,” Jaber said.
For the past four years, she has been called on as needed to translate voicemail messages, call parents for counselors and translate for parents during meetings and conferences.
Most parents she deals with are well-educated and have college degrees, but their challenge is language and understanding exactly what they are supposed to do to help their child. Most parents understand English to hear it but find it difficult to reply, Jaber said.
Being a parent of five boys, Jaber understands what parents want. She is happy to be able to help, and parents are happy to have her there, she said.
“We want the best for them. We want them to do their best. This is everyone’s concern,” Jaber said.
State law requires school districts to administer a Home Language Survey to all newly enrolled students and to assess the student for English language skills if a language other than English is spoken at home.
A school must offer “transitional bilingual education” when 20 or more students of the same language are enrolled in the school and must provide instruction in the students’ home languages, according to the Illinois State Board of Education.
Schools also must establish a bilingual parent advisory committee to ensure parental participation and conduct workshops for families so they understand the tests and programs their children are taking.
Both Lincoln-Way Community High School District 210 and Homewood-Flossmoor Community High School District 233 have small multicultural populations and offer help to non-English-speaking families on a case-by-case basis, relying on bilingual staff or students to translate.
“In my nine years at H-F, I have seen no more than five to 10 cases. Whether it is one or 100, we make sure parents know we have staff available,” guidance department chairman Jim Schmidt said.
Lincoln-Way District 210 spokeswoman Stacy Holland said the district meets with parents four times a year and relies on technology to send messages in foreign languages.
Bremen always has a translator available and offers evening English classes to Hispanic parents.
At Eisenhower, they go “above and beyond” what the law requires, Principal Gary Rauch said.
Bilingual staff work in the front office so they are able to help whoever walks in. There are free English and computer classes for Hispanic parents and workshops on how to navigate the American educational system. The workshops are attended by 30 or 40 parents every semester, Rauch said.
Parents need help understanding grade-point averages, class rank and financial aid forms.
Castillo knows firsthand what non-English-speaking parents are experiencing.
“When I came from Mexico, I had trouble understanding the American system. I would like to help other Hispanic parents understand the system,” she said. “We don’t have ACT tests in Mexico. We don’t use terms like ‘sophomore.’ ”
Roxana’s mother, Maria Olivia Flores, attends the workshops and takes English classes. They have been a big help, and she wants to spread the word to let other parents know what is available.
“It is important to involve more parents in school so they will not be scared to come,” she said, with Roxana translating.
Kibelkis said the parents “really value education and want their kids to do their best. They want to help us help their children.”
Getting it done
Both Robles and Jaber said schools still could do more, by creating their newsletters, report cards and other parental notices in other languages.
“The school usually sends notices or leaves phone messages in English,” Maria Robles said through her son. “Unless something is for Spanish-speaking parents only, information is usually in English.”
Still, she said, the “parent support is amazing.
“There has been a huge shift in recent years in addressing the needs of Spanish-speaking parents” — especially when Castillo began working with parents — Maria Robles said.
Jaber, meanwhile, thought it was “so cool” to see one of her son’s report cards in Arabic.
“It means they are thinking of me as a parent. They care about me,” she said.
But recently, an Arabic parent received a letter from school and had to contact Jaber to find out that it was about programs for students at risk of failing.
“It was something important. It would be nice if it was in Arabic,” she said.
Maria Robles said she is motivated to be involved in the schools because she wants to be sure the sacrifices she and her husband have made for their children are worthwhile. Her son Jose is aware of what they go through, too.
“Anything to do with school, they are here,” Jose Robles said. “Because my parents have pushed me, I am more independent, and that makes it less stressful for them, but they still check up on me. They know that I know I have to do well in school.”
Roxana Flores said her mother “worries a lot” about her children’s education and is “always asking questions.”
“We help each other. I help her with her English. She motivates me. Because she did not finish school, she pushes us to have a great future,” she said. “She keeps up. She does not feel like she is missing anything.”