Ms. Perez is one of those moms who used to never attend parent-teacher conferences. It is not because she was lazy, or because she didn’t care, or even because she didn’t have time. Her excuse: “My English isn’t very good”, she admitted to me in a strong Hispanic accent.
The Latino, or Hispanic, demographic is one that has been steadily growing all over the Twin Cities for the last few decades. Unfortunately, school staff has not been able to keep up with this trend, and many parents shy away from attending conferences and other school events where English is the only language spoken. In light of this, many schools have started to avail themselves of interpreter services provided by agencies like Dialog One, successfully bridging the linguistic gap and thus allowing parents and teachers to communicate, and collaborate in the academic development of the student.
I attended a Minneapolis Middle School that held one such parent-teacher conference on Friday, February 14th, and it was a most rewarding experience to interpret for them and witness first-hand the difference that this makes in the lives of everyone involved. The setup was intelligently designed with a handful of interpreters lined up in chairs at the school entrance. Upon arriving at the school, Hispanic parents are immediately asked by school staff whether they need an interpreter, and if they say yes, one of us is called in. When my turn comes, I stand up, walk over to meet the family, and from then on, I basically escort the parents throughout the entire series of conferences until they have sat down and inquired about each class. Teachers talk about a wide range of issues including the student’s performance in class, their conduct, their overall demeanor, their ability to get along with peers, etc. Parents, on their part, assured that I am sitting next to them, weigh in with concerns about their kid’s grades, discipline, sociability, and so on. Many of these children are in 8th grade, their last year of middle school, and so parents and teachers confer about the best ways to nudge them off to a good start in High School. One of the families I worked with had a child who required special education services, and his math teacher advised that, given a choice between two high schools he should go for the one that offered smaller classes with fewer students, as this would guarantee that the teacher come around to the student more often and pay more attention to his development and performance. Mom and dad thought this made perfect sense and decided accordingly.
Some parents seemed content to have their children interpret for them, but it is very easy to see the glaring conflict of interests here. Nevermind that students at this age do not have the linguistic proficiency to articulate bilingually many concepts discussed in these conferences, most “bilingual” kids speak 90% one language and 10% the other. I remember being rather amused as I watched one kid reassure his mom that he only had two missing assignments. This was technically true and part of what the teacher had said. What little Pedro neglected to mention, or rather, deliberately decided to omit from his teacher's original reproval, was that these two missing assignments were the only two assignments so far. I, of course, proceeded to correct this minor slip and set the record straight, thus incurring I am sure, Pedro’s eternal wrath.
I can say without conceit that it is very hard to imagine all of these conversations taking place in my absence (or the absence of any other interpreter for that matter). Hispanic parents deserve to be informed about the academic performance of their kids just like everybody else. Yet, this simple right is still denied to many of them who do not speak English. These parents need professionals who can facilitate a dialog between themselves and their kid’s teachers, and I am happy to have contributed with at least that.