Einstein gets it right, with messaging in three languages. (G. Murray) Credit: Gwendolyn Murray

Imagine that you are an immigrant, perhaps undocumented, with limited formal education in your home country and even more limited proficiency in English. To participate in your child’s education in New Orleans requires navigating a decentralized school system, one with charter authorizers, management organizations, application processes, and performance metrics that change annually.

If you arrive in October, you’ve already missed the beginning of the school year. By word of mouth — another parent in your community, perhaps — you get wind of a nearby school that can assist you in your native language: Spanish. You gather your passport and any records you may have for your child and pay the school a visit.

Because it’s already at capacity for the fall term, you are sent to a Recovery School District Parent Center. With no one on hand who speaks Spanish, you are redirected to the EnrollNOLA website, which translates content into Spanish, but still leaves you at sea. What, for example, is a charter school? What is STEM? What do the icons mean? So, you use the map and pick a school close to your home that still has some vacancies.

At the school’s front office, in all likelihood there will be no signs indicating the availability of services, such as translators and interpreters. You attempt to communicate in broken English. People roll their eyes at you.

At some schools, the front office will summon a staff member with a limited grasp of your language. At most schools, you will receive a packet of information in English. If you’re lucky, there will be a bilingual staff member who can walk you through the enrollment paperwork.

These are scenarios uncovered through legal investigations, and my own academic research, of what it’s been like for people with limited English proficiency (LEP) trying to deal with Orleans Parish schools.

In 2013, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (in collaboration with VAYLA-New Orleans, a Vietnamese community group) filed two separate and notable lawsuits with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights regarding discrimination experienced by LEP families.

In the first suit, in Jefferson Parish, the Southern Poverty Law Center found extensive discriminatory practices against Spanish-speaking LEP students and families. And this is a district where one in four students is Hispanic.

Walk into almost any school with a nominal immigrant population. Do you see bilingual signs announcing the availability of language services? Nope? That school is in violation of Executive Order 13166 …

The second suit, filed in Orleans Parish, found overwhelming discrimination against Vietnamese and Hispanic parents. Schools failed to communicate effectively with LEP parents, denying them meaningful participation in the education of their children and dependents. It amounted to de facto discrimination on the basis of national origin, which is forbidden under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

In response, the Orleans Parish School Board entered into a voluntary resolution agreement with the feds, promising better services for LEP families.

But four years later, public schools in the New Orleans area continue to discriminate against Spanish-speaking students and families. The evidence? Walk into almost any school with a nominal immigrant population. Do you see bilingual signs announcing the availability of language services? Nope? That school is in violation of Executive Order 13166, a Clinton-era effort to ensure the rights of immigrants with limited English proficiency.

There’s also a mechanism in federal law to help pay for these services. Under Title III of the Every Student Succeeds Act, districts – which in New Orleans’ heavily chartered system are often individual schools — can apply for funds to support programming for English language learners and their LEP families. It’s why schools keep track of enrollment data for LEP families and file it with the state Department of Education.

The federal money is meant to supplement, not supplant, state or parish funding for language learning and parental support. Even without it, schools are obligated to provide language services.

I recently spoke in Spanish with a Honduran mother with two children enrolled in a New Orleans public school – Pierre A. Capdau, in this instance, though her experience might have been the same at dozens of others. She had first approached Esperanza, a majority-Hispanic school that is about as inclusive and compliant as a school can be for a Spanish-speaking community. The school was already at capacity. She tried Capdau — not a positive experience.

In Spanish, she shared with me that when she arrived at Capdau, she alerted staff in her native language that she could not communicate in English. There were no signs announcing the availability of language services.

Having struck out in the front office, the woman was told to cool her heels and wait for the school to rustle up a teacher who knew Spanish. It turned out to be a long wait, a waste of time — hers, the teacher’s — that would have been obviated if Capdau’s administrative staff had included Spanish speakers.

Fortunately, with its growing Latino population, Capdau now has a couple of people on staff to triage interpretation needs, though on my own visit to the school, early this year, I still saw no posted signs in Spanish that announced their availability. And interpreters are sometimes available at public meetings of the Capdau community, the woman said, though on at least one occasion she has had to bring her own interpreter to a student-appraisal meeting meant to guide her child to needed services.

This mother is savvy. Don’t let her lack of English proficiency fool you. She understands her rights to services, and is active with Nuestra Voz NOLA, a local nonprofit advocacy group that educates Latino parents on the complex structure of New Orleans K-12 schools and helps them understand their rights.

I asked for her ideas on what New Orleans schools should do to overcome language barriers like those she described.

Ideally, she said, more schools would adopt a bilingual or immersion model like those available at Esperanza, Audubon Charter, the International School of Louisiana, and International High School. Research supports her view that bilingualism is best.

Short of that ideal, she said, officials need to require that each school have at least one person readily available to translate or interpret as needed. She stressed that schools need to staff language support professionals so parents aren’t left struggling to coordinate services their children need. Essentially, she reiterated the baseline mandates implicit in federal law.

Too often, the onus of language access is inappropriately placed on parents. Schools can and should provide translation and interpretation services.

The school systems need to get smart about language services.  Otherwise, litigation is imminent.

Not only is it the law, it is probable that the schools are already receiving funds to pay for compliance based on the data for LEP enrollment they provide the state. Federal and state data is dated — a separate problem — but according to the U.S. Department of Education, in 2009 Louisiana received $2,951,681 in federal funding for 11,715 Title III students. This breaks down to $252 per pupil, more than California gets ($115) or New York ($224). The time frame also precedes the wave of young immigrants who arrived from Central America in 2014.

As a teacher, I can verify that schoolhouse barriers to LEP parental participation hurt our performance as well as the child’s. There’s a well-established correlation between parental involvement and positive student performance. I find myself constantly using my Spanish fluency to communicate with Latino parents. I can’t imagine what it must be like for parents and teachers when neither speaks the other’s language or no one is around to interpret for them.

Bottom line: New Orleans area public schools need to get with the program. Latino student enrollment is steadily on the rise. And Latino parents feel left out at Orleans parish schools.

Schools need to provide LEP parents and guardians with translation and interpretation services. Even using Google is better than nothing. Hiring practices need to change, placing a priority on candidates who speak second, even third languages. Charters can use their administrative and curricular autonomy to poll LEP parents in their native language and ask what they need to participate in school life.

For schools that are lost, there is federal guidance for English language learners and LEP parental outreach. They can learn from errors others have made with Special Education noncompliance.

The school systems need to get smart about language services.  Otherwise, litigation is imminent.

Gwendolyn Murray is an education researcher and consultant. She completed her PhD at Tulane’s Stone Center for Latin American Studies, focusing on education, immigration, and the law. During her three years at ReNEW Schaumburg in New Orleans East, she was named Special Education Teacher of the Year for 2014-2015.

The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.