¿Alguien Puede Entenderne?: Can Anyone Understand Me?

I intern in the front office this year during my sixth period, during which I answer the phone and help direct parents and visitors when they come into the school. For the most part, things run smoothly at the front desk, but I’ve noticed one issue: If a parent comes in, and doesn't speak English, we have to do our best to understand what they need. Lakeside has a diverse student population, and their parents reflect that. This year, Lakeside students speak thirteen different languages, ranging from Arabic to Vietnamese. ESOL teacher Courtney Robinson keeps this informal record, but “it is the closest thing to an official count,” said Robinson. Respecting these parents should be important to the school, and providing them with resources should be considered. A Dekalb County ordinance states that all people can request an interpreter to come to public services with them, including courthouses and schools. Parents are able to request an interpreter through the Dekalb International Welcome Center, or through the administration at their student’s school. However, there doesn’t seem to be any place for parents to make that request. I called the IWC multiple times to get more information, and never reached anyone who could answer my questions.

Waiting Game

If Ms. Nunn is forced to go and find someone to translate, she has to leave her desk unattended.

Photograph by Sara Carr

The process to request an interpreter is not simple, so it makes sense for there to be an established interpreter at the school instead. Lakeside needs a system to respect non-English speaking parents better. Currently, none of the front office staff speak Spanish, the second-most common language spoken by Lakeside’s parents. Sometimes parents wait over five minutes to check their students out or get what they need, because we can’t understand what they want. Senior and former ESOL student Marian Escalona said that her dad only tried to check her out once. “Luckily, there happened to be someone there who spoke Spanish, but there isn’t usually,” she said. Office secretaries Jessica Nunn and Tammy Starks try their best to help parents, but sometimes they have to resort to pulling a student out of class, or tracking down a world language teacher to translate for a parent. Escalona has also experienced this. Once, when she was visiting her counselor, Ms Casey was struggling to understand what a parent wanted. “She asked me if I spoke Spanish, and could translate for her. But what if I hadn’t been there?” Escalona said. This solution, however, does not address the root of the problem, and raises concerns about confidentiality.

Problems arise in areas other than just speaking, as well. “When the school calls home, it’s a problem, because they don’t understand at all,” said Escalona. The school might call home to give information about absences, as well as school closings or other announcements. The school needs to be able to communicate effectively with all parents in order to pass along important information. The language difficulties go the other way, as well. “If I need an absence note, my mom will have me write it because [the front office] can’t read Spanish,” said junior Maria Rampaly. Escalona agreed, and added that on one occasion, the front office called her up to check the legitimacy of an excuse note. “They thought that I had made it up, because it was in my handwriting,“ she said. For seniors especially, other problems may arise. All parents have questions about college, and the application process, and Escalona expressed concerns about her mom’s struggles requesting college information. “She has me write down questions and then I ask them, but she really wants to ask for herself you know?” Escalona said.

In past years, several staff members like Mr. Banderas who worked in the counseling office spoke Spanish and could assist parents. “He was really helpful, but now there’s no one who speaks Spanish,” said Rampaly. Those administrators couldn’t always translate, though, and he has since left Lakeside, leaving no bilingual office staff in their place. A solution to the problem is placing a full-time bilingual parent liaison in the front office so that no one is left waiting around to be helped because the office staff doesn't speak their language. “That would be really helpful, because sometimes my parents can’t check me out, even if I feel really bad.” Escalona said.

If hiring a new staff member can’t be a realistic option, training current teachers could be a better alternative. Other resources could also be used. For example, programs like Google Translate or Systranet offer free instant translation services. Although this solution is not the best, having a tablet at the attendance desk with one of these programs up would allow parents and parents to type their conversation.

Screenshot by Sara Carr

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