Language barriers

Immigrant groups see chance to improve language services in chancellor’s reorganization

PHOTO: Brian Charles
Parents and immigration advocates gather at the headquarters of New York Immigration Coalition to ask the Department of Education to improve access for parents with limited English proficiency.

Immigrants’ rights advocates are seizing on coming changes to the city’s school-support structure as a chance to request better translation services for parents.

A consortium of advocacy groups called on the Department of Education on Tuesday to put a staff member in charge of translation and interpretation services in each superintendent’s office, which are set to grow as part of a reorganization of the school system that will begin this summer. Those offices — or the new borough centers — will be in the best position to help schools struggling to provide materials to parents in their native languages, they said.

“There’s something very real at stake here for our immigrant families,” said Kim Sykes of the New York Immigration Coalition. “So many of them come to the U.S., come to New York City, precisely because they want their children to have a better education. They really want to know what is going on and they want and need to be able participate actively.”

Federal education law requires the city to make translation and interpretation services available to parents in their native language, and city regulations also require the Department of Education to provide vital student documents translated into the parent’s language. Responsibility for some of those services rests with individual schools, and others are overseen by the department’s Translation and Interpretation Services Unit.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña has committed new resources to a variety of programs targeting English language learning students and parent engagement. Meanwhile, the mayor’s proposed budget includes $800,000 for a hotline specifically to make sure limited English proficient parents are aware of language services they’re eligible for.

At a Tuesday press conference, parents said there is a long way to go. And advocates see an opportunity in Fariña’s structural changes, which officials have said should improve parents’ ability to seek help and lodge complaints.

In her most sweeping reform effort to date, the chancellor is shifting power to oversee and assist schools back to geographically organized superintendents, and creating new borough field support centers to help schools with academic and operational matters and with supporting students with special needs.

The coalition is proposing placing the staff members responsible for improving translation and interpretation services in either the superintendent’s offices or in the borough centers to be closer to the schools and parents requiring help. They would then work with schools to provide in-person translation services and make sure materials sent home are delivered in the parents’ native language, among other responsibilities. (Each superintendent’s office will already have two “family engagement officers,” according to city officials.)

On Tuesday, parents said that help was still sorely needed, telling stories of student report cards and progress reports not being sent home in a parent’s native language, fliers telling parents about their right to translation services mailed home in English, and parent-teacher conferences and school workshops held without translation services. Earlier this year, middle school guides were not translated for weeks after being released in English.

In 2012, Advocates for Children along with New York Lawyers for Public Interest filed a lawsuit against the city claiming it was not providing translation and interpretation services for non-English speaking parents of special education students, which has not yet been resolved.

“When I take time out of my schedule to become involved in my kid’s school and I am not getting the translation services I need, it has an impact on how well they are doing in school and the amount of money I bring into my household,” Samsun Nahar, a Bronx parent and member of the South Asian immigrant advocacy group Desis Rising Up and Moving, said through a translator.

A Department of Education spokeswoman said the Translation and Interpretation Unit trained 850 teachers, principals and other staff members to work with parents with limited English proficiency in 2013, and the department plans to train more staff members. The department will also produce “culturally sensitive communications in subway ads, radio ads and communities across the city,” spokeswoman Yuridia Peña said in a statement.

“This is a critical aspect of the Chancellor’s vision — to include parents as partners in all aspects of their child’s education,” Peña said.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede