Using an app that scans an English text and translates it into Spanish, Ramon Leon helps his son with homework at the VAYLA office in eastern New Orleans. Credit: Matthew Hinton/The Advocate

Every school night, Ramon Leon helps his older son with his homework. Typically, they speed through the math worksheets. Word problems take longer because Leon’s son, a third-grader at a New Orleans charter school, has to translate them into Spanish for his father, who speaks little English. Grammar worksheets sometimes stump them both. (Leon does not want the school’s name published out of respect for his son’s teachers.)

Leon, who moved to New Orleans from Mexico with two sons just before the start of the school year, is an involved parent: He attends all report-card conferences — using his third-grader as an interpreter. On the nights when he can’t help his older son figure out an assignment, he won’t sign the homework form. Instead, he writes “No entiendo” — Spanish for “I don’t understand.”

Usually, the teacher responds with a note to him in English. And the confusion continues.

The Leon family’s dilemma is typical of the challenges facing New Orleans families who speak Spanish and Vietnamese. Households where the two languages are spoken make up the overwhelming majority of the city’s non-English-speakers; and most of their children attend a decentralized school system dominated by independently operated charter schools.

Interviews with a dozen such families with children in a range of schools found that many of the schools fail to translate letters, school calendars, or even report cards. Typically, all signs posted in the school’s office are written in English. Automated phone calls to parents are in English.

On-site interpreters are scarce, parents said. One mother described trying, unsuccessfully, to tell the school nurse that her son had been diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma that could be triggered in physical-education classes. Students frequently end up interpreting for teachers and parents at report-card conferences — and even at meetings where their own discipline problems are being discussed.

As a result of these gaps in services, the Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association, known as VAYLA, partnered last year with the national Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund to file a federal complaint. They did so on behalf of 35 Spanish- or Vietnamese-speaking parents with students at five named schools as well as all other non-English-speaking parents of children throughout the city’s public school system.

“I have a voice. It may be in Vietnamese, but it is my voice.” — Theresa Thao

The complaint alleged that the Orleans Parish School District and the state-run Recovery School District, both of which oversee charter schools as well as traditional, centrally administered schools, routinely fall short of federally mandated translation services for parents who speak little or no English.

Specifically, the complaint outlined how most of the schools fail to provide translated documents concerning major school events, parent-teacher conferences, school closures, disciplinary infractions, special-education services, and other topics.

Barry Landry, a spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Education, said he couldn’t comment on the complaint. He said the state monitors public schools to ensure their services for non-English speaking families are in compliance with federal mandates. But the monitoring is mostly limited to paperwork reviews, he said.

Federal law requires school districts to “communicate as effectively with language-minority parents as (they) would with other parents,” according to a manual published by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

While many school districts nationwide — particularly those undergoing budget cuts — struggle to adequately serve non-English-speaking families, the situation in New Orleans is unique. That’s because of the ethnic and linguistic complexity of the city as well as the radically decentralized school system created since Hurricane Katrina.

“We haven’t seen this kind of situation elsewhere,” said Thomas Mariadason, a lawyer for the legal defense fund. “There’s nothing quite like the education landscape in New Orleans.”

Coming to rebuild and bringing families

Serving non-English-speaking students in Orleans schools has been complicated by a convergence of two trends: growing communities where English is not the primary language and a preponderance of independent charter schools, many of which are building programs for non-English-speaking students from scratch.

Nationwide, one in 10 students speak a language other than English. But, excepting the influx of Vietnamese families relocated to the city after 1976, prior to Hurricane Katrina New Orleans had bucked the trend.

Even a decade ago, a sluggish New Orleans economy attracted few newcomers: U.S. Census data from 2000 showed that nearly 80 percent of the city’s residents were born in Louisiana, the highest rate of native-state residents in any American city.

Most New Orleans public schools had few, if any, non-English speaking students, with the exception of a few schools clustered near the community of Vietnamese war refugees in eastern New Orleans.

But as the city rebuilt after Katrina, things changed. Plentiful construction jobs and a strong economy attracted an influx of nearly 5,000 new Hispanic residents, many of whom sent for their families and settled down. Census data shows a 57 percent increase in the city’s Latino population since 2000.

The number of public school students with limited English skills has nearly tripled in New Orleans public schools within recent years: from 440 in 2006 to about 1,200 at the start of this school year, according to data provided by the Louisiana Department of Education.

Stand-alone charter schools can’t tap into a traditional school district’s cache of bilingual curriculum materials or rely on a central office to assess new students’ English-language fluency. Many of the schools are now striving to create these resources, but without the economies of scale that can be realized by sharing interpreters or bilingual teachers systemwide.

“They’re operating like silos,” said Ofelia García, a professor of urban education at the City University of New York who has edited and authored several books about bilingual and language education.

In 2011, the Louisiana Language Access Coalition, which formed in the wake of Katrina to address the unmet language needs of new residents, prompted some systemic reforms. One victory was convincing then-Recovery School District superintendent John White to place Vietnamese and Spanish interpreters in its school registration centers. At the coalition’s request, White also agreed to provide funding to translate the “Parent’s Guide,” a directory of New Orleans schools, into the same two languages.

But within a couple of years, the interpretation service grew erratic and the group was unable to make headway on other fronts, coalition co-chair Daesy Behrhorst said. State education spokesman Landry said the erratic scheduling was due to a change in staff and that the RSD is now hiring new Vietnamese and Spanish interpreters for the centers, with money recently supplied by the New Orleans City Council.

Language Access Coalition leaders now realize that to influence policy, they must knock on many doors, Behrhorst said. This year, coalition members plan to visit the operators of each of the city’s roughly 80 charter schools as well as the handful still run directly by the Orleans Parish School Board and the Recovery School District. “To support parents, we have to talk to every school,” Behrhorst said.

Other advocacy organizations have gotten creative in order to help parents get the services they need in a balkanized school landscape.

On any given day, for instance, VAYLA youth advocate Cristi Wijngaarde answers her cell phone several times and hears robocalls in English advising parents about early school closures, mandatory parent meetings, field trips, detention, and undone homework.

Several Spanish-speaking parents added Wijngaarde to their school’s call list because they couldn’t understand the messages. Each time a robocall comes through, the parents follow up with Wijngaarde for an explanation.

On a recent evening, Theresa Thao stopped at VAYLA to ask about her daughter’s recent sick day, which was marked as “unexcused.” Thao, who speaks some English, said she initially found it very difficult to be pushy. She used to get physically ill when she had to go to a child’s school and complain. And she had to ask an older daughter to take time off from college to interpret at regular meetings about a son’s special-education needs, since the documents were not translated. Staff members at VAYLA have helped her build more confidence and get necessary answers.

In the case of Thao’s daughter, a ninth-grader at KIPP Renaissance High School, Wijngaarde explained that the school office must have lost the doctor’s note and advised Thao to bring a new one and ask for a copy of it.

When Thao visits a school on her own, she has learned to stay until she is sure her point is understood. At Renaissance, where there’s rarely an interpreter available, she sometimes demands to speak to the principal. (A spokesman said KIPP works with non-English speaking families to develop individual plans that meet their needs.)

“I have a voice,” Thao said. “It may be in Vietnamese, but it is my voice.”

The complications facing educators

The VAYLA complaint, which was filed with the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Justice’s Office of Civil Rights, focuses primarily on the failure of schools to communicate with parents.

But, parents aside, many of the same schools are also struggling to figure out the best way to educate students with limited English skills — whether by hiring more bilingual teachers or providing better training for English-speaking instructors. And either option entails considerable expense.

Launching a program for students without strong English skills is complicated. Standards vary from state to state and there’s still considerable disagreement over the most effective ways to educate these students. Louisiana’s English-learner handbook gives very little curriculum guidance, except to caution that programs “should not segregate English-language learners beyond the extent necessary.”

“It’s not a clear-cut, slam-dunk answer,” said Claude Goldenberg, a Stanford University education professor and expert on literacy and non-native speakers. While a strong bilingual program (which involves teaching in both English and the child’s native language) is preferable, not every school has the capacity to create one, he said.

What matters most is a strong academic curriculum with teachers trained to work with students who are not proficient in English. There also should be time set aside each day for specialized English-language instruction for non-native speakers, Goldenberg said.

In some ways, New Orleans has it easy because its schools deal primarily with just two non-English languages, Wijngaarde says. “We have Spanish and Vietnamese. We don’t have 40 or 50 languages like New York City,” she said.

In places like New York, English-as-a-second language (or ESL) teachers become skilled in working with small classes of students who may speak five different languages but are grouped by their English ability.

He held up his phone and played a recent voicemail message from his other son’s teacher. The teacher spoke Spanish butchered so badly that no one he knows could understand it.

A few New Orleans schools, including Einstein, a charter school in eastern New Orleans, have seasoned ESL teachers and have worked with Vietnamese refugees and their children since the mid-1970s.

The school is not far from the thriving Mary Queen of Vietnam Church, which after Katrina began holding masses in both Vietnamese and Spanish. With 162 students not fluent in English, more than any other charter school in the city, the school records robocalls in three languages — English, Vietnamese, and Spanish. The front office includes a Vietnamese speaker.

Einstein also translates what it considers “important” correspondence, including report cards and special-education notices, although the school’s monthly calendar and some other notes are issued in English alone.

Within the school, there is an entire row of classrooms for English-language instruction. English learners are pulled out of regular classes for 60-minute blocks where they focus on language basics using teaching aids, such as drawings of shapes, colors and common nouns. New arrivals with little or no English are pulled out for longer blocks.

But even Einstein is experiencing hiccups, particularly as it adapts to an influx of Spanish-speaking students. In the federal complaint, a few Hispanic parents described difficulties communicating with school officials during emergencies — including cases involving a student who was injured and a child about to be arrested for alleged vandalism.

Shawn Toranto, the school’s chief executive officer, would not address the specifics of the complaint. But she said the school now has 25 staffers who can speak Vietnamese and four who speak Spanish, including a paraprofessional who can be pulled from classrooms to translate.

Toranto believes Einstein’s growing pains are in the past. She said she welcomes the increase in English learners. “We’ve always had a diverse population. We accept it and know what we need to do,” she said.

School operators without Einstein’s long history are figuring out for the first time how to serve English learners and their families. Ben Marcovitz, the founder of Collegiate Academies, a network of three charter schools, noted that communicating with families who speak little English has presented unique challenges. For instance, at one of his schools, Sci Academy, though most of the English-language learners are Vietnamese, only one instructor, a paraprofessional, speaks the language, compared with seven who speak Spanish.

English learners started showing up two years ago at all three Collegiate Academies schools and now make up roughly 4 percent of the overall student body. The network relies heavily on technology to help communicate with families. The front office, for example, uses a three-way telephone line to interpret for parents, and the network gives all English learners personal electronic translators.

Oanh Nguyen, a junior now earning straight As, depended mostly on her electronic translators and daily meetings with an English-speaking adviser when she arrived at the school two years ago. “There was no Vietnamese speaker who could help me in class,” she said. “I mostly could not talk. I just kept silent. I could not do much work.”

The translation app, offered by Google, is a boon to bilingual families.
The translation app, offered by Google, is a boon to bilingual families. Credit: Matthew Hinton/The Advocate

Now, with improved English she is able to translate for her parents at report-card conferences. That won’t be necessary, the school says, now that Sci Academy makes interpreters available on report-card nights as part of an effort to “radically” bolster services for parents.

Charter networks that run multiple schools often fare better because of their larger aggregate enrollments and greater budgeting flexibility. FirstLine, which runs five schools in New Orleans, has been able to phase in a small department designated to serving English learners and their families.

Diana Richard, FirstLine’s ESL coordinator, started the department two years ago, slowly adding more services. This school year, FirstLine began recording all robocalls in English and Spanish. All field-trip permission slips now go out in Spanish as well as English. A bilingual paraprofessional is available to families and teachers every day to translate documents and correspondence. And a Loyola University professor and his class translated the school’s longer documents, including like the 32-page student handbook, into Spanish. Once a week, the school hosts an after-school story hour offered in both English and Spanish.

If teachers need to communicate with a Spanish-speaking parent, Richard will often call or text for them. But if she’s busy, the teachers reach out to other bilingual FirstLine colleagues and avoid using students as translators.

That’s the kind of broad support that stand-alone schools often lack. But good intentions mean something, said Leon, the father who moved recently from Mexico with his two sons. He held up his phone and played a recent voicemail message from his other son’s teacher. The teacher spoke Spanish butchered so badly that no one he knows could understand it.

In Houston, where his nephews go to school, teachers routinely ask Spanish-speaking colleagues to leave messages. But that must not be so easy an option in New Orleans, he said, cranking up the volume to reveal why the teacher’s speech was so halting. In the background, a young child can be heard prompting her in Spanish, word by word.

At least, Leon said, she was trying.

Katy Reckdahl is a freelance journalist in New Orleans. The story was produced in association with The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.