New York City is a melting pot of of cultures — yet its public schools only offer limited translation services. Photo: Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

As part of the public school Gifted and Talented Kindergarten application process, parents of children not currently enrolled in Universal Pre-Kindergarten are interviewed by Department of Education employees to ascertain whether the applicant qualifies for inclusion into the G&T lottery.

During this assessment, families are asked whether the child poses many questions? Whether they engage in creative play? Whether they are sometimes a leader, and sometimes a follower? Basically, they are asked whether this is a human child, and when the parent confirms, in NYC, this is classified as “gifted” behavior.

As I explained this process to a new NYC resident, I was struck by an epiphany: The mother in question spoke English as a second language. She struggled describing her child to me. When having the same conversation with a DOE representative, there is no way she would be able to wax equally as poetic as a parent who also happens to be an English professor at Columbia University. As a result, her child had less of a chance to be accepted into a G&T program. This has nothing to do with the child’s alleged intelligence. It didn’t even have anything to do with the parent’s alleged intelligence. Only their ability to speak English.

Attempting to mitigate this fundamental inequity, I reached out to the NYC Public Schools press office to inquire whether the interviews were available in other languages.

I received the reply that: Our Division of Early Childhood Education conducts interviews in languages other than English, and are based on the home language indicated on the kindergarten application. Interpretation services are also available for these interviews.

This exchange prompted me to dig deeper into precisely which translation services were – and weren’t – available to NYC Public Schools students and their guardians. This is what I found out:

Home base

To begin with, the official government web-page which offers a video proudly proclaiming: NYC Public Schools Speaks Your Language, is available in Arabic, Bangla, Cantonese, French, Haitian Creole, Korean, Mandarin, Spanish and Urdu.

If none of those happen to be your spoken language, “families may complete the Translation and Interpretation Services Request Form to request language services.” Said Services Request Form is available in Arabic, Bangla, Chinese, French, Haitian Creole, Korean, Russian, Spanish and Urdu. So… that’s not really an upgrade.

The homepage itself may be translated via a Google Translate link in the upper righthand corner. However, a caveat at the very bottom of the page reads: Automated translation are (sic) not intended to replace human translators…. No warranty of any kind, either expressed or implied, is made as to the accuracy, reliability, or correctness of any translations made from English into any other language. Some content (such as images, videos, Flash, etc.) may not be accurately translated due to the limitations of the translation software.

You would think that since the DOE is aware of the problem, they would have taken steps to fix the problem. You would be wrong.

The human touch

Since “automated translation are (sic) not intended to replace human translators,if you do not speak one of the languages featured on the website, such as the mother I referred to earlier, you are advised to fill out a form to request a human interpreter.

This would be the aforementioned form that’s available in Arabic, Bangla, Chinese, French, Haitian Creole, Korean, Russian, Spanish and Urdu. When you click on it, however, the first thing the form does is urge you not to use the form. Instead, it recommends you “to first contact the student’s school to request immediate support with your translation and interpretation needs.”

When you try to do that, though, the main page warns: Please note language services may vary depending on the student’s school. 

In response to my inquiry as to what exactly that means, I was advised by NYC Department of Education Spokesperson Chyann Tull that, “Equity and accessibility are the bedrocks of effective school systems. New York City Public Schools provides system-wide translation and interpretation services for students and families. The Office of Language Access partners with school staff to help them support the language needs of their individual school communities. We prioritize multilingual communications and translate all important information into nine covered languages.”

If your school does not make available the services you require in the language which you require, then you’re back to the form covered in nine languages. You can almost hear the DOE sighing as they grudgingly concede: If you choose to complete this form, the NYC Public Schools’ Office of Language Access will forward your request to the appropriate school, office, or Committee on Special Education (CSE). 

Good old 311

While you wait for that paperwork to make its way up the chain of command, you “can also call 311 to make a request for language services. Interpretation over-the-phone is available in over 240 languages.”

The Office of Language Access assures that they offer “document translation, and in-person, virtual and over-the-phone interpretation,” while NYC 311 goes further to promise: The City translates school and Department of Education (DOE) documents for parents and guardians at no cost. Oral interpretation is available in more than 170 languages. (That’s 70 fewer languages than promised by the DOE, but math instruction is not a strength of the NYC public school system.) 

There are separate interpretation services available for DOE employees. In fact, the instructions for access sternly warn that they “are for school-based personnel only, and may not be shared with parents or the general public.”

When I was working with a closing school to help place their current students in new institutions, I was given access to those services in order to facilitate my communication with the primarily Spanish-speaking parents. The calls were dropped or disconnected so many times that we chucked the DOE service and proceeded to just use the Google Translate feature on our phones. 

At least we know that the services offered for staff are just as insufficient as the ones offered for families. That’s equity.

Kids: The trustiest of translators

I immigrated to the United States at the age of 7. For many years, I was my mother’s translator for not just my parent-teacher conferences, but my brother’s too. (Most teachers were perfectly accepting of the situation. Only one refused, snarking that this was a “parent-teacher conference, not a sibling-teacher conference.” Based on his behavior, I can guess that by that point, I’d probably done more conferences than he had.)

Thirty years later, when my husband and I were rushing up and down the stairs of our three children’s respective public schools for their three-minute-per-student conferences, the hallways were filled with the sounds of multiple languages. Many more than the nine languages prioritized by the DOE. Translation was happening. But it was provided not by the schools, but by the kids. 

You can fill out a form. You can call a dedicated number. But in the end, you’re much better off just doing it yourself.

For as long as NYC has been a city of immigrants, families have been coming up with work-arounds for when their schools failed them.

This shouldn’t let the DOE off the hook. Just because parents have figured out how to get the information they need, doesn’t mean the system shouldn’t be constantly updated and refined. 

It’s true that, often, families resort to DIY translation services because they simply are not aware of what’s available for them. But that’s also the responsibility of the DOE.

“In 2022,” I was advised by the press office, “we launched a multi-year language access marketing campaign to meet parents where they are, and bring awareness to these services through channels including print, digital, radio, social and public transit advertisements.”

Tull insists, “New York City Public Schools provides on-going information about the resources and supports available to them, and we remain dedicated to continuously expanding our outreach efforts to improve accessibility for families of all linguistic backgrounds.”

Considering how many parents, teachers, administrators and schools are still left to flounder in the dark, it would appear that your communications options have not yet been adequately communicated to all who might stand to benefit from them.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.