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Immigrant Parents Learn ABC's of American Education

  • Elizabeth Johnson

It's that time of year when mothers and fathers engage in the semi-annual ritual of meeting face-to-face with their child's teacher. Parent-teacher conferences are a familiar routine. But for parents who don't speak English, staying on top of a child's education is anything but routine. So, as the number of immigrant families in the United States continues to grow, so does the need for a third participant at those parent-teacher conferences: the interpreter.

On a recent afternoon at Whitman Elementary in Spokane, Washington, mother and teacher meet to chat in the first grade classroom. They fold themselves into kid-sized chairs. Teacher Jena Hollenbeck pulls out a progress report for German Tishchenko, 8, and tells his mother, "He is doing a good job at his work habits. In fact, he was very good at listening and following directions."

While German understands his teacher, his mother, Oksana, does not, and that's why Vera Puzankova is here: to translate. The bilingual specialist works for the school district. Federal civil rights guidelines direct schools in every state to provide interpreters for parent-teacher conferences.

Like much of the country, this part of the American northwest is becoming increasingly diverse. School hallways in this largely rural district ring with almost 50 foreign languages, with Russian being by far the most common. Howard de Leeuw oversees English language programs for Spokane public schools. He explains, to meet the needs of kids you also have to meet the needs of their parents.

"Parents know their children best," he says. "They want what's best for their children. If we don't allow them to speak in a language that they're most comfortable with, to talk about the needs of their child or the progress of their child, then we're bordering on doing a disservice to parents if we have the option to provide the first-language support."

That gets harder every year. In the Spokane school district, federal and state funding covers only about a third of what it costs to provide interpreters and other services for English-language learners. Local taxes make up the difference. De Leeuw says it is not a sustainable system. "That's why we have a deficit this year in our district and we'll have a deficit next year in our district."

With students who speak dozens of different languages, teacher Amy Berube knows first-hand the benefits and obstacles that go with trying to meet ever-growing demands. "Hiring enough people for Spanish and Russian and Vietnamese and Chinese. And then when we get refugees from areas that we haven't had previously, Somalia, for example. We have more refugees coming from there." She says that poses new challenges for school staff and teachers.

School districts throughout the nation have ongoing tussles with state lawmakers over this type of partially-funded mandate. But it's worth the fight, says Howard de Leeuw, because for newly-arrived parents, an interpreter is key to finding out how American schools work and what teachers expect. "And oftentimes, that's at odds with what their experience has been with the school system in their home country," he points out.

The learning goes both ways. DeLeeuw and Berube say schools also get a crash course on the lives of refugee and immigrant families. "They're looking for a place to live, they're looking for food, they're looking for clothing, they're looking for work." Berube adds, "They're just looking for peace. So maybe academics is the last thing on their mind. But eventually, through having interpreters, they can ask the questions and they can become involved."

For mother of four, Oksana Tishchenko, becoming involved doesn't mean joining the PTA. The family fled southern Uzbekistan to get away from the violence in neighboring Afghanistan. Now she just wants to be able to help her son German with his homework. Through Puzankova, she asks the teacher how to work with him on his vocabulary words. An 8-year-old's improved spelling is a small victory that takes place in the undersized world of a first grade classroom.

Whether there will be more small victories will depend on the final numbers in state education budgets.