Groups criticize public schools for inadequate translation services

Two advocacy groups filed a civil rights complaint Friday with the U.S. Department of Justice on behalf of 11 Vietnamese and Latino parents whose children are enrolled in several New Orleans schools.

The complaint claims that the schools have failed to provide adequate translation and interpretation services to parents with limited English proficiency, resulting in instances where parents have been unable to communicate with teachers and administrators about their children’s academic progress, behavior and overall well-being.

The complaint by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association. In it, the Orleans Parish School Board, the Recovery School District and charter operators Collegiate Academies, Einstein Group Inc. and Advocates for Academic Excellence in Education are accused of having violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of national origin, by not providing Vietnamese- and Spanish-speaking parents with written translation of various school correspondence, including progress reports, disciplinary actions and reports of harassment and injury on school grounds.

“What we’re hoping is that the government will help us to work with the school districts and with the independent charters to provide consistency for interpretation and translation services,” said Thomas Mariadason, an attorney for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. “We also hope some of the more critical impacts of what that means will be addressed.”

Justice Department spokeswoman Dena Iverson said the office has received the complaint and is reviewing it.

The document includes 11 specific incidents. In one example, the Vietnamese-speaking parent of a special education student at Sci Academy wasn’t able to identify deficiencies in her child’s educational plan because documents explaining the program weren’t translated into Vietnamese. When the child began failing classes, a meeting with teachers did not include an interpreter. The parent said the school responded with hostility when requests for interpretation or translation are made.

Sci Academy is operated by Collegiate Academies, which issued a statement in response to the filing.

“Collegiate Academies and our schools welcome diversity on our campuses and are pleased to serve a diverse community of scholars, including a large number of students who receive English as a second language services,” spokeswoman Allison Zimmer said. “Though we have not yet seen the complaint from VAYLA, we always welcome feedback from families, students and community organizations on ways that we can improve our programming for all students.”

In another instance, the Spanish-speaking parent of a gifted student in danger of failing out of Benjamin Franklin High School was unaware that the student was struggling because correspondence and telephone calls conducted in English were translated by the child, who left out unfavorable details of her school life.

Tim Rusnak, the school’s chief executive officer, said in a statement that the school was “disappointed in the lack of dialogue on this issue before the complaint was filed by VAYLA.”

“As a center for learning, we are always open to community input and appropriate ways to serve our students and their families,” Rusnak said.

The report also gives examples of what it considers inadequate service at George Washington Carver Preparatory, Einstein Charter School and Einstein Extension.

A telephone call to charter operator Einstein Group Inc. was not returned Friday.

The Orleans Parish School Board, which oversees Einstein, had not yet reviewed the complaint Friday and therefore had no comment, spokeswoman Danae Columbus said by email.

The Recovery School District, which oversees Collegiate’s Carver Prep and Sci Academy, referred to a statement from state Superintendent of Education John White.

“While VAYLA has provided us no papers to review, we can say that over the past five years literacy and math proficiency have risen from 37 to 63 percent of students in New Orleans,” White said in the statement. “In a district where the vast majority of students come to us from low-income families, that progress speaks volumes about the commitment of our educators to the rights of all New Orleans children to receive an excellent education, irrespective of race, class or home language. We look forward to reviewing the concerns once they are made available to us.”

The complaint has been a year in the making, said Cristi Wijngaarde, who works with the Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association. Wijngaarde previously worked as a parent liaison for the Intercultural Charter School and Einstein Charter. Although Wijngaarde was supposed to work with all parents, she found herself dedicating more time to translating for Spanish-speaking parents who didn’t receive the same level of information about their children as those who spoke English, she said. When she left those schools for a new job, parents continued calling her for help.

“So, I knew from that that there was no plan to replace me,” Wijngaarde said. “So I would still support them and go to meetings and translate things on my time off.”

Wijngaarde organized the parents she worked with and took their concerns to the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

The problems expressed in the complaint are not limited to the identified schools, Mariadason said.

“They all have varying degrees in which they all provide language access and fail to provide adequate language access,” Mariadason said. “It’s not about any particular school. We are concerned on the district level about what’s going on at schools that are covered by the Recovery School District and the Orleans Parish School Board.”

The complaint asks the Justice Department to launch an investigation. Ultimately, Mariadason said, the hope is that the school district will put procedures in place to identify who is responsible for providing interpretation and translation to limited English proficient parents, to express how such services should be provided and to provide a mechanism for enforcement.