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Bridging the Language Gap in Richmond Public Schools
RICHMOND, Virginia − When you send off your child to school, you harbor certain expectations. You hope that your child will be safe, productive, and social. You also hope that the teacher or school will communicate with you about school events and your child’s progress.
But what if you couldn’t read the PTA newsletter or notes sent home by the teacher? What if permission slips, fliers and report cards confounded you? What if returning a teacher’s phone call or attending a parent-teacher conference seemed more like an obstacle in a fantastical quest than a normal parental task?
For the 10 percent of Richmond parents who speak a language other than English at home, these anxieties are not just hypothetical. They are a part of daily life in a metropolitan area that is challenging itself to meet the needs of immigrant families.
Over the past decade, the Hispanic immigrant population has nearly doubled across the state, while the Asian immigrant population has risen 68 percent. There are now more than 62,000 Latinos in the Richmond metropolitan area, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
More than 1,000 of them are students in Richmond Public Schools with limited English proficiency who speak primarily Spanish at home.
This year, RPS has more than 1,320 students with limited English proficiency – up from 400 a decade ago. Those students speak about 40 different languages, from Afrikaans and Arabic to Vietnamese and Yoruba. The vast majority – more than 1,050 of the students – speak Spanish.
These students are your children’s classmates and possibly their friends. Their parents are your neighbors.
At last count, RPS had 21 English as a Second Language teachers. And there’s just one full-time staff member with the express job of bridging the linguistic and cultural gap between schools and immigrant parents. That person is Barbara Ingber, the ESL parent liaison for RPS.
Ingber relies heavily on students from Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of World Studies and University of Richmond’s Latin American and Iberian Studies Department.
Students in VCU’s Spanish-English Translation and Interpretation program, for instance, must complete a community internship to earn their certificate. While most students choose to interpret at clinics like CrossOver Health Care Ministry, many have interned for RPS and neighboring school systems.
One student, for instance, interned at Hanover County Public Schools and translated the transcript for a DVD used to inform parents about the Individualized Education Program.
“For communities that are not as traditionally literate as typical United States citizens, [translating the transcript] may not be as effective, but it’s a starting point,” said Dr. Laura Middlebrooks, head of VCU’s SETI program.
More often, SETI interns will work directly under Ingber to translate documents and announcements or serve as interpreters at parent orientation workshops and other meetings.
“Barbara is personally very committed to face-to-face contact and creating a relationship with the parents of the students. She puts in a tremendous amount of time to plan workshops for parents,” Middlebrooks said. “Sometimes the workshops are very well attended; sometimes they are not.”
Attendance can lag because of poverty. According to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau, about 38 percent of Richmond’s Hispanic residents live in poverty – a higher proportion than for non-Hispanic African Americans (31 percent) or non-Hispanic whites (19 percent). Many Latinos work low-income jobs, and taking time off can lead to lost income, or worse – termination.
Ingber’s office has also been seeking translators for Vietnamese, Mandarin, Hindi and Arabic. VCU and UR do not offer pre-professional training in translation or interpretation for these languages.
Spencer Turner, co-founder and program director of the Virginia Center for Latin American Art, cites another reason for ESL parents’ relatively low attendance at RPS workshops and other parent nights. Even with translators and interpreters to overcome the language barrier, a cultural one remains.
“In more traditional, rural Latin American schools, schools don’t offer the same kinds of services you find in the United States,” Turner said. “If Hispanic parents are told their child needs to see a speech pathologist, they might ask what that means. They might feel anxious about receiving what they see as too much information. They might not know what to do with it.”
Although the Richmond school district appreciates the relationship it has with VCU, relying on college students for translation and interpretation services at parent workshops is less than ideal.
“Sometimes the [college] students lack the maturity and the sensitivity that an interpreter needs to have,” Turner said. “They don’t always have the advantage of having traveled and experienced different education systems in Latin America.”
Turner has taught language arts, Spanish and English as a Second Language in Richmond Public Schools, Brazil and Peru. His nonprofit, VACLAA, partners with RPS for a cross-cultural arts program called ¡ImaginArte!
For many English-speaking, middle-class Americans, earning a driver’s license or graduating from high school seems routine. But achieving those goals can be difficult for ESL parents and their children because of the language and cultural barriers.
“¡ImaginArte! means ‘imagine yourself’ in Spanish,” VACLAA’s website explains. “It is a program that provides Latino youth from communities on the rise with the opportunity to dream, imagine their dreams, dress their dreams in the finery of art and let them take their first steps in the world.
“Moreover, ¡ImaginArte! is about giving at-risk Latino youth the opportunity to share their dreams with, not only their immediate community, but with the greater community of the state of Virginia.”
Full disclosure: As of January 2013, Christine Stoddard is a working board member for VACLAA.