NYC Schools Tackle Language Barrier

David B. Caruso, AP, Sept. 7

High school student Emily Cuellar has an easy way to sugarcoat things if her grades slip or her teacher sends a note home complaining about her behavior in class.

She speaks fluent English. Her parents, born in Colombia and Ecuador, do not, and have depended on their daughter, now 16, to translate for them since she was a little girl.

“I totally took advantage of my mom,” Cuellar said. If there was anything less than flattering, “I’d just leave it out.”

Her experience is a common one in immigrant-rich New York, where about 43 percent of public school students speak a language other than English at home. Parents who are not fluent may feel distanced from the schools by their inability to understand report cards, read permission slips or interact with teachers.

The district—where public schools open Thursday—is hoping to change that this year with a $7.5 million expansion of its translation and interpretation unit.

For months, the unit’s beefed-up staff has been translating school documents into eight languages: Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Bengali, Haitian Creole, Korean, Urdu and Arabic.

This fall it hopes to launch an over-the-phone interpretation service for schools that need to communicate with a parent who doesn’t speak English.

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