Reaching Students’ Families on Their Terms

Lori Aratani, Washington Post, Jan. 24, 2006

How do you translate “authentic assessment” into Urdu? “Stakeholders” into Spanish? “Paradigm shift” into Cambodian?

Translation is a notoriously difficult task, but in the world of education, which often employs a language all its own, the job can be even more daunting. After all, in education, parents aren’t just parents, they’re “stakeholders.” A test isn’t a test—it’s an “outcome-based assessment.”

Increasingly, education is not just about how to reach students in the classroom—it’s about how to communicate and connect with their families outside of school.

“Immigrant families are the fastest-growing sector of the school population in the U.S.,” said Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, co-director of New York University’s Immigration Studies Program. “Schools in every corner of the country are facing this issue.”

In Montgomery County, where students speak more than 140 languages, letters go home in five languages in addition to English: Spanish, French, Korean, Vietnamese and Chinese. Fairfax County officials translate student handbooks and notices into seven tongues: Spanish, Urdu, Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Arabic and Farsi.

“There is so much educationese out there that even an English speaker doesn’t have total understanding,” said Cindy Kerr, president of the Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Associations, which has pressed for improved translation services in the county, where the number of non-English-speaking students increased 83 percent from 1995 to 2005.

During the summer, the Montgomery school system launched a full-time unit to focus on translations for the central office and the system’s 194 campuses. The school system, which previously had used contractors and some staff members to do the work, is hoping to improve the consistency and quality of the work by bringing it in-house.

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And the task is growing more complex. For more than a decade, Fairfax County school officials have had a translation unit. Initially, it was staffed by a handful of folks—some working on a part-time, as-needed basis. But as more students have entered the system from countries around the world, the demand for services has escalated. In the 2004-05 school year alone, workers translated more than 2,400 documents and did more than 12,560 interpretations.

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Take the Dr. Seuss classic “Green Eggs and Ham,” which Vergara was asked to translate as part of a home activity for students. The concept of colored food doesn’t necessarily translate to other cultures, Vergara said.

“In other countries, people might think, ‘Why would you want to eat a green egg?’ “ Vergara said. “But children here, they grow up with that book, so for them, it would be fun to eat a green egg.”

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