Breaking barriers: Portland parent-teacher conferences in a multilingual era

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PORTLAND — Shamso Farah, a Somali translator and parent liaison for the Portland Public Schools’ multilingual department, rushed into her boss’s office at Lyman Moore Middle School on March 21 with a minor crisis on her hands.

It was parent-teacher conference day at the school, and for five weeks before, Farah and other members of the department had been working to coordinate the meetings, navigating the schedules of teachers, hired translators, and the parents of more than 30 students who needed interpretation to understand what the educators would have to say about their child’s progress.

In February, there were 2,117 students in the city’s English Language Learners programs, representing 58 language groups and just over 30 percent of the entire student population. Multilingual department director Grace Valenzuela estimates that half are from families whose parents want or need a translator present during parent-teacher conferences.

Twice a year, she and her staff of fewer than 10 “parent community specialists” – most of them fluent in several languages, and most of them part time – make hundreds of phone calls to schedule conferences for all of those students and their parents.

Now a translator, hired from outside the department, wouldn’t be able to make it. Parents were arriving, teachers waiting. Farah would have to fill in, leaving the front desk empty with no one to greet families as they entered the school, or to direct them toward the teachers’ rooms.

It sounds like a small service, but it was a new approach and had proved effective at reducing the confusion for parents and school staff during the hectic conference period.

After a moment of consultation, Farah and Valenzuela deputized another staff-parent liaison as the greeter for the day. Alfred Jacob, a Sudanese man who serves as the department’s Acholi translator, and who was himself in charge of organizing Portland High School’s conferences just a few days later, gathered his papers and went to the school lobby to spend his afternoon smiling and showing uncertain parents to their meetings.

“Somebody just steps in,” Valenzuela said later. One way or another, they make it all work.

They have to, Valenzuela said – the conferences are a key tool in making sure that students’ educations are on track.

“It’s a three-way deal. It takes a student, teacher, and someone in the home to make a successful student. And that’s for every student, no just language minorities,” multilingual department staffer Jeanna Best said.

For parents who aren’t fluent in English and may not understand the American education system, the conferences are a chance to familiarize themselves with school or district programming and have technical education-related language translated appropriately.

“The issue that we want to make sure of is that parents are still in charge,” Valenzuela said. Immigrant parents’ own knowledge of English and American culture is sometimes outpaced by their school-aged children, leading to an unnatural balance as they depend on the kids to translate or navigate social situations with Americans.

But, “more and more they understand they have an input in their childrens’ educations,” said Somali parent community specialist Mahmoud Hassan. “They have a stake and they have a say in how and what their kids are taught.”

So from February to April, Valenzuela and the others consult school secretaries and social workers on teacher schedules, call parents – sometimes five or six times each to find a time that works – contract outside translators to fill in the gaps that they can’t themselves, enter data into vast color-coded spreadsheets to keep all the meetings straight, and send out reminders days before the meetings.

The process can be exhausting.

“When we go home, we don’t want to do any phone calls and we don’t want to talk,” Hassan said. Parents sometimes call the parent liaisons back at home, or at night.

“There are a lot of hoarse voices at this time of the year,” Best said.

The staff also has to work to train teachers how to communicate more effectively with non-English speaking parents, Valenzuela said.

That may mean sitting directly next to the translator, to ensure that teachers address the parent rather than the translator. Teachers are asked to speak directly, rather than use the typical American allusions to undesirable performance or behavior. And they have to get everything in, leaving time for parents’ questions, in about half an hour, a time period effectively cut in half by translation.

Because all of the district’s staff translators and community liaisons are delegated to conferences for those weeks and months, “that’s (time) that they’re really not available for emerging needs,” Lyman Moore social worker Phil Studwell said.

But the process, complicated as it is, is starting to gel, he said. This spring, about 90 percent of Lyman Moore’s translation-needing parents showed up.

“Compared to five years ago, it’s really starting to work,” Studwell said. “Each time it improves.”

Andrew Cullen can be reached at 781-3446 ext. 100 or acullen@theforecaster.com. Follow him on Twitter: @ACullenFore.

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