New Orleans students find shortcomings in language services

Dung Tran, an 11th grade student in a New Orleans Public School, speaks to the community about language access barriers for both students and families in the school system.
Dung Tran, an 11th grade student in a New Orleans Public School, speaks to the community about language access barriers for both students and families in the school system.

Myra Silva stepped up to the microphone, exuding confidence in her loud, clear voice, but just a few words into her story about being a bilingual student, the 19-year-old’s voice broke, her eyes welling up with tears.

“I would always get pulled out of class. I would always be used as a translator,” she told the crowd of about 100 people who had gathered Friday at Mary Queen of Vietnam for the release of a report titled “ESL: Lost in the System.”

“I would be pulled out for 30 or 40 minutes just to translate, and I would lose that time,” she said. Once, she said, she was pulled out of class while taking a test because the school needed her to make phone calls to Spanish-speaking parents to inform them of an early dismissal. The task took about an hour, she said.

She wasn’t able to finish her test, missed her own bus and had to call her mother — who had to leave work early — to come and pick her up.

“I never realized they were taking time from my learning,” Silva said. “They were just using me like I was an adult, and I was just 14.”

The report was compiled by Silva and about 20 other youth organizers, part of the Youth Organizing Unity (YOU2) program of the Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association of America (VAYLA).

Through a partnership with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), the young men and women surveyed more than 120 students in six New Orleans public schools, as well as many families.

“After nearly two years of collecting community stories through film, surveys and interview recordings, we have come to one conclusion — that our families are lost.” YOU2’s news release contends.

Dung Tran, an 11th-grade student, said that conducting the surveys wasn’t easy, and they did it without the support of the schools so that they could make sure it was a student-controlled report.

“It’s not right to take a child out and make them work,” said Tran, of her own experiences being pulled out of class to translate. “They pay people to be translators. The child’s job is to learn and not work.”

Cristi Wijngaarde, part of the adult VAYLA staff who assisted the students with the report, said that the AALDEF helped the students identify where their rights had been violated.

Students also told stories about being put into English as a Second Language classes without being tested, with many students saying they felt they had been put in the classes based only on their surnames or the fact that their parents did not speak English.

According to the report, 69.5 percent of Asian and Latino students surveyed said they were placed in an ESL class that they did not feel was appropriate for their level of language development.

“I tried to get out of ESL, but the school wouldn’t let me,” said 12th-grader Emmanuel Chavez in the report. “I was pulled from other classes to go to ESL to learn something I already knew, English. I did everything I could, but I was still trapped in ESL. Being non-American gets you put in ESL, no matter if you know English or not.”

Another student, ninth-grader Tiane Oliver, said in report that she was put in ESL because her mother spoke a different language, even though she was fluent in English. In third grade, she said, she was taught kindergarten phonics.

By contrast, 12th-grader Lorrenzo Torres told the audience about struggles earlier in his education, when he would often go home having no idea what the teacher was talking about.

“All students have different needs, and my needs were in English. The state gives them money for that,” Torres said. “They gave me an A or a B even though I didn’t do the work because they didn’t know what else to do,” he said.

Jacob Cohen, Education Equity Director for VAYLA, said that students and families requiring language services have not been well-served in the post-Hurricane Katrina education landscape of privatization and decentralization.

Prior to Katrina, the central district office employed certified ESL instructors and translators who could be dispatched to any school in need, he said. Now with the more than 40 independent governing boards, the assumption was made the services would continue despite the structure being gone, Cohen said.

“We’re not seeing that with every school,” he said. “They were given a great deal of autonomy but not enough oversight.”

Oliver said the students did not intend for the report to “call out” specific schools or charter organizations, and thus did not include the names of the schools.

However the students surveyed attended schools both chartered and directly run by the Recovery School District and the Orleans Parish School Board, as well as a school directly run by the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The report also focused on the families “lost in the system.”

The mother of a Vietnamese student approached the microphone. As she told her story in her native language, she cried, wringing her hands. A translator relayed her story of an autistic son who struggled at school and came home saying he didn’t want to go to school and didn’t want to live. Though the translator, the mother said, “I can’t advocate for him. I feel helpless — there is no one in the school who speaks Vietnamese.”

In the report, 54.9 percent of Asian and Latino students said that there are no teachers or staff at their school who speak their parents’ native language. Only 16 percent of students from families classified as having limited English proficiency said that their parents are offered interpreters or translators for important school meetings.

Luis Flores, a ninth-grader, said he was placed in an alternative school because he was caught with a lighter at his previous school. But the school instead charged him with having a gun, Flores said, and throughout the expulsion hearing his mother was denied a translator and had no idea what was happening.

“When parents can’t get involved when their children get in trouble, the child gets more punishment than they should,” Tran said. “They don’t have a voice because their parents don’t have a voice.”

Oliver said that during their interviews they talked to many students who were bullied or struggling in school but the school was unable to communicate the problems to parents, and the problems just got worse, even leading to students dropping out. The parents “basically feel helpless,” Oliver said.

In the survey, 72 percent of Asian and Latino students in New Orleans said that forms are rarely or never sent home in languages that their parents can understand.

Elizabeth Marcell, executive director of Intervention Services at ReNEW Schools, attended the meeting, and she said she wants to take an honest look at what her schools were doing well, and what they need to work on. ReNew runs five schools and will expand with two more schools next fall.

Marcell said ReNew has a certified ESL teacher but isn’t able to provide bilingual services to all students and families, which include Russian and Arabic students.

Marcell said the students in her schools are assessed as required by the state, and that they are grouped according to ability. She said one area in need of improvement is having documents translated and providing translators at events.

“I’ll take back the recommendations,” Marcell promised and said that she’ll meet with staff from other schools to discuss sharing resources.

The report’s recommendations include translating critical forms, not relying on children as interpreters and ensuring the ESL classrooms have certified ESL teachers.

The report also recommends that charters work to create shared services and that the Louisiana Department of Education conduct annual visits to schools to ensure that they are following laws concerning language access and programs.