Portland parent interpreters provide lifeline between schools, new Mainers

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PORTLAND — For more than three decades a group of city residents have worked to ensure that families who don’t speak English can be as engaged in and informed as anyone about the school life of their children.

The Parent Community Specialists who work with the Multilingual & Multicultural Center at the Portland Public Schools can provide intrepretation services in 12 different languages, from Arabic to Portuguese and Khmer to Swahili.

Along with interpreting and translation services, the specialists assist in what’s known as cultural brokering, or creating bridges or links between people of different cultures to help them better understand each other.

They also provide training to school staff about the education systems in the countries where their students and their families come from, to ease the transition and clearly outline expectations.

Grace Valenzuela, who heads the Multilingual & Multicultural Center, said this week that Parent Community Specialists have been working for the School Department for the past 35 years and their services continue to be invaluable.

“In the U.S., parent engagement in school is expected and vital to the success of students,” she said. “Our (language access) services ensure that parents who don’t speak English are able to engage with school and support their students’ success.”

Under the School Department’s langauage access policy, the schools are required to automatically provide translation of vital documents and interpretation to parents if there are 50 or more students speaking a particular language,” Valenzuela said.

There are eight languages that fall into that category: Acholi, Arabic, French, Khmer, Portuguese, Somali, Spanish, and Vietnamese. In addition, she said, among the current group of specialists there are those who can also speak Swahili, Lingala, Kinyarwanda and Kirundi.

Valenzuela said the specialists are paid to work either part- or full-time, depending on the demand for the particular langauges they speak.

All specialists go through an interview process, Valenzuela said, and all are at least bilingual, if not multilingual. They must also have interpretation and translation experience and training, and “have excellent interpersonal and cross-cultural competency skills.”

What impresses her the most, Valenzuela said, is that many of the specialists received professional training in their country of origin. “They were dentists, teachers, college professors, nurses, broadcast journalists, and even United Nations interpreters in their home country,” she said.

“(Our) staff came here as refugees, immigrants and asylees and have known serious struggles and family separations on their road here,” Valenzuela said. “Yet, they come to work every day ready to make people’s lives better. They have an excellent work ethic, are professional, and contribute to our diverse work environment.”

She said families can request the help of a specialist through a help desk system, and sometimes schools will also call if there is an immediate need for translation services or other assistance.

“We work over the phone, in person at the schools, through home visits, and whenever we are needed to support students and families,” Valenquela said. “(The specialists are) often lifelines for our families, helping them to communicate with schools and often many other agencies and organizations.”

Valenzuela, who was born in the Phillipines, said her first language was Tagalog, one of the more than 180 different languages spoken in the country. She finds it inspirational to work with all of the different specialists who now call Portland home.

“I love learning about other cultures, sharing our lives and experiences, and working with a group of people so dedicated to supporting students and families,” Valenzuela said. “They come from so many varied backgrounds, yet have come together here to do their best to be good stewards and support their communities.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 780-9097 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Grace Valenzuela is the director of the Multilingual & Multicultural Center at the Portland Public Schools. She’s originally from the Philippines and said parent interpreters are vital to keeping families who don’t speak English engaged in the school lives of their children.

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