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New Survey Shows Language Barriers Prevent Immigrant Parents from More Involvement in Kids' Education - 2004-02-20

A new survey of New York's public school system finds that language barriers are preventing immigrant parents from being adequately involved in their children's education.

According to the report, called Denied at the Door, immigrant parents who wanted to be more involved in their children's education often faced obstacles due to their limited English skills. The two main sponsors of the survey, the New York Immigration Coalition and Advocates for Children, say New York city schools are not doing enough to effectively communicate with parents.

They cited some of the study's findings: nearly half of the parents surveyed said they never or rarely receive written information from schools in a language they can read, and more than half of the respondents said they never or rarely receive oral intrepretation of school-related information in their native tongue.

Margie McHugh, Executive Director of the New York Immigrant Coalition says the survey's findings underscore a troubling lack of access for immigrant parents.

"We are talking about hundreds of thousands of students whose parents cannot be actively involved in their education unless we have a translation and interpretation system that meets their needs," she said. "We do not have anything like that system now. We have occasional isolated translations of a few documents here and there. We do not have anywhere near the system we need."

The study, which surveyed nearly 1,000 parents, is the largest done so far in New York. The sponsors say New York schools are breaking federal, state and local laws by not providing interpretation and translation services, especially when a huge proportion of the city's population is composed of immigrants.

Ana Cartagena knows first hand what it is like to be shut out of her children's education. As an immigrant from Puerto Rico who doesn't speak English, Ms. Cartagena spoke of how she has struggled to be involved with her daughters' education.

"My daughter's school wanted to transfer her to english classes from bilingual classes. I went to talk to the principal about this who told me that I should find someone to translate for me and that if I wanted to know what was going on in with my daughters in school I needed to learn English," she said. "My lack of English does not indicate a lack of love or concern for my children."

The survey also found that more than a quarter of the parents said they had signed school-related documents, such as disciplinary notices, in English without understanding the documents.

Another parent, Hyochong Kang who speaks Korean and has two children, says she rarely receives written information from her children's schools in her native language.

"It's really difficult for recent parents who just moved here for them to be getting notices just with a stamp saying important information, please translate," said Hyochong Kang. "That is not good enough."

Sponsors of the study say in other parts of the country, such as Los Angeles and Seattle, programs are in place to help immigrant parents participate more actively in the schools. They are calling on New York city officials to set up a centralized translation and interpretation unit as well as provide simultaneous translation equipment at parent-teacher meetings.

Advocates of the changes say if Spanish and Chinese interpretation and translation services were offered, it would meet the needs of 75 percent of the immigrant parents. They say the programs would cost between $5 and $7 million a year.