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Equity Through Language Access: Best Practices for Collaborating with Interpreters

Learn how teachers, administrators, bilingual staff, and families can collaborate with interpreters in order to ensure students have equitable access to their education.
male Latino tutor talks to parents at a school
Published: 08/05/2021

"If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart." — Nelson Mandela

For an immigrant or refugee parent, navigating the complexities of an unfamiliar school system can be challenging, even in normal times. Immigrant and refugee parents are not typically familiar with how we "do school" in the U.S. unless it is explained. After all, everything from academics to the role of parents in their children's education is different!

When we add on the virtual or hybrid "layer" to this level of unfamiliarity, it is even more necessary that we commit to ensuring equitable family engagement. The number one component for ensuring equitable engagement with immigrant and refugee families is language access.

To help schools expand their own language access, we would like to offer the following tips for teachers, administrators, bilingual staff, and parents on how to collaborate with interpreters. Interpreters' roles and responsibilities are often little understood by their colleagues, so the stronger this collaboration is, the more effective family communication and partnerships will be — and ultimately schools can ensure that families have a cultural and linguistic bridge to equitably engage in their children's education.

Vignette: Language access during COVID-19

When COVID-19 began, an Afghan refugee father of two elementary-aged children attempted to get information from his children's school about distance learning. The school provided most everything in English and Spanish, but he spoke Pashto and very limited English. He appreciated when his children's teachers called, but he didn't understand anything they were saying. Therefore, he was at a loss for how to best support his children's learning while they were home.


Federal Requirements on Language Access

Federal law requires that parents and guardians of students in U.S. schools receive information in a language they understand. This is referred to as "language access," which involves providing parents/guardians with meaningful access to information and services, regardless of their ability to speak, understand, read, or write English fluently. This is done through interpreting (oral) and translation (written).

There are many options for how school districts fulfill interpretation and translation requirements and ultimately, this issue of access is one of equity. According to English Learner Administrator Kristina Robertson, "Districts committed to equity need to invest in interpretation." When districts do not comply with these requirements, they are vulnerable to complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and/or the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). One can read the many cases on both the OCR website and DOJ website that have to do with national origin discrimination, which includes language access for parents.

Bilingual Staff and Interpreters

It is important to note that bilingual staff and interpreters are not the same thing:

  • Bilingual/multilingual staff speak multiple languages. They may also be able to write and translate in those languages, but that is not always the case. They may not have had formal training in translation or interpretation.
  • Interpreters have received extensive training related to best practices for interpreting/translation, as well as training on specific legal and educational considerations around matters where they will be interpreting.

Bilingual staff members' ability to communicate directly with families in their native language is a valuable asset for establishing partnerships with multilingual families. However, bilingual staff without formal training should not be responsible for facilitating interpreted communication between families and staff for meetings and events — only trained interpreters should be interpreting for families.

It is important to note that the 2015 guidance from OCR and DOJ reinforces this distinction, stating, "a staff member who is bilingual may be able to communicate directly with limited English proficient parents in a different language, but may not be...trained to interpret in and out of that language, or to translate documents."

The following Immigrant Connections graphic explains this distinction as well:

Slide with bullet points on when to use bilingual staff and interpreters

Strategies for Partnering with Interpreters

Here are some tips for various stakeholders that can improve collaboration with interpreters throughout the school and district.

Tips for teachers

  • Never utilize students to interpret for any reason. Ever. This is because educational interpreting requires a high level of preparation and cognitive skill — many more skills than just being bilingual! Furthermore, much of the information communicated to parents in schools is confidential and/or vital. In addition, the federal guidance from 2015 states "Schools must provide translation or interpretation from appropriate and competent individuals and may not rely on or ask students, siblings, friends, or untrained school staff to translate or interpret for parents."
  • Clarify roles with your bilingual colleagues and with the support of an administrator if needed.
  • Seek out (or advocate for) training on how to work effectively with interpreters in order to ensure appropriate eye contact and parent-focused communication.
  • Get to know the communicative needs of your families and avoid making assumptions about English proficiency levels.
  • Whenever possible, connect with the interpreter before the meeting to share important documents and prepare them for sensitive topics that may arise.
  • Encourage your instructional colleagues to utilize language access resources that are available.
  • For planned meetings, request interpreting services in advance.
  • Keep in mind that families may have varying levels of literacy and some families may not be able to read emails, text messages, or flyers.

Choosing the right communication method

It's important for educators to seek out the most meaningful methods to facilitate authentic communication with parents/guardians regularly. For informal communication, texting apps can be useful when used with discretion in appropriate situations, such as:

  • quick check-ins
  • reminders
  • tech support.

However, for more detailed and/or confidential conversations, it is critical to have an interpreter available, who may be on the phone or in person. These situations include:

  • school registration
  • assessment
  • special education evaluations
  • IEP meetings
  • 504 meetings
  • sensitive health or counseling information
  • emergencies.

If you are uncertain about how and when to use which language access resource, check to see whether your district has guidance available or whether they might create guidance for staff.

Advocating for more language access resources

If you are interested in playing more of an advocacy role around language access, there are some additional things you can do:

  • Start by sharing this guidance from OCR and DOJ with your administrators. It can serve as an excellent tool for advocacy!
  • Identify best practices in neighboring districts and galvanize parents to advocate for the resources necessary for adequate and accurate communication with families.
  • Refer families to community-based organizations that support immigrant families' rights and can support organizing and advocacy for interpretation and translation services.

Tips for administrators

  • Become familiar with the federal guidance around language access services for parents who are not native speakers of English.
  • Clarify roles for your bilingual staff, recognizing that only trained interpreters should be providing those services. Encourage your bilingual staff to communicate directly and build relationships with families in their native language, but do not make them responsible for facilitating the communication between families and other teachers throughout the building.
  • When creating family and community engagement plans, always consider the language access services — and any related funding — that will be necessary to ensure all families can be equitably involved.
  • Recognize that you are your school’s community engagement lead and should model the effective use of language access resources to communicate with everyone in the school community. As James Humes notes, "The art of communication is the language of leadership."
  • Help build the capacity of your staff to use available language access resources independently to communicate and build authentic relationships with families.
  • Learn about when and how to utilize federal Title funding for language assistance, including parameters around "supplement-not-supplant."

District-level guidance on language access

If your district has guidance related to language access resources, ensure that all staff have the necessary information for making access more widely available.

If your district does not have guidance related to language access, consider drafting guidance for district staff explaining:

  • what the language resources are in the district
  • how to use them
  • appropriate uses for each purpose, as noted in the final teacher tip above.

You can may be able to collaborate with colleagues in other districts to learn more about their policies. You can also see some examples of district policy in this Administrative Procedure for Language Access document from Prince George's County Public Schools.

Tips for bilingual staff

Tips to share with families

You can share the following tips with families in their home languages, as well as with staff in discussions about increasing language access in your school or district:

  • Learn about your right to receive information in a language you understand.
  • Find out what type of language assistance exists in your district. Are there interpreters available in-person, virtually, or by phone? Are documents translated?
  • Utilize an "I Speak" card if needed.
  • If little to no language assistance is available, talk to your child's principal or another administrator about your concerns.

Language Access in Virtual Settings

Intentionality is central in organizing for meaningful language access to support communication for meetings and events occurring via virtual platforms. Plan ahead and consider logistics and varied modalities for virtual language support.

The simultaneous interpreting feature within a Zoom platform or a simultaneous line is most effective for larger virtual gatherings, while consecutive interpretation works well for smaller virtual meetings.

See more tips for effective multilingual family communication in remote/hybrid settings from the following articles:

What language access looks like

Prince George's County Public Schools, MD

Prince George's County Public Schools (PGCPS) in Maryland, has been a leader in the development and execution of a robust language access program. Acknowledging the critical nature of language access for families decades ago, interpreting and translation services were initiated in the district in 1993. PGCPS recognized language access as a central issue of equity, and the school district created an Office of Interpreting and Translation (OIT) in 2010, built from the ground up.

Today, the OIT provides language access resources in a diverse school district of more than 60,000 international families. The PGCPS Interpreter Bank has more than 100 on-call interpreters (oral) representing over 20 languages and a team of six translators (written) supporting systemic and school-based translations, including the district website and language-specific social media. The district fills more than 18,000 interpreting requests annually. Dr. Jennifer Love notes, "When we know how language access resources should be organized and implemented for effective communication, we have a responsibility to our families and our school communities to get it right."

Brockton Public Schools, MA

Brockton Public Schools in Massachusetts serves a large population of English language learners (ELLs) who speak many languages, including Cape Verdean, Portuguese, Haitian Creole, Spanish, Chinese, and Karen. The district has built a robust infrastructure of multilingual support for its families — so much so, that the main registrar's office in the school district central office is right next to the office of the Director of Bilingual Education, Kellie Jones. This ensures that families can get support in their language from the moment they walk in the door. While many staff members throughout the district are bilingual, including teachers, paraprofessionals, school nurses, and counselors, the district has also ensured that interpreters have appropriate levels of training.

Ms. Jones notes, "We work to make sure that all staff for whom translation is part of their job responsibilities have a certificate to do so. All of our 11 Bilingual Community Facilitators and 3 Parent Advocates have undergone 30-hour course training on Interpretation and Translation. We also currently have two paraprofessionals going through training with UMass-Amherst."

This multilingual network, which has survived some tough statewide budget cuts due to a fiscal commitment from district leaders, has been able to support families through COVID-19 in critical ways. As Superintendent Michael Thomas noted, "It was more important than ever to make sure that parents were receiving information in real time in their native language. And you couldn't have a delay in that, because that meant that people weren't going to eat and people weren't going to get the benefits that they were entitled to."

To see more about Brockton's multilingual COVID-19 response, see "Proactively Building a Rapid Response Team" by Dr. Debbie Zacarian.

Salina Elementary, MI

The staff at Salina Elementary School in Dearborn, Michigan serve a large population of families from Yemen. Many of the staff throughout the building are bilingual. One of the key staff members in partnering with families is parent liaison Sana Hamad, who does both written translation and spoken interpretation. She notes, "It's so important to provide parents with someone who speaks their language because we want them to understand what's going on. We want them to feel comfortable coming to school and to find someone who speaks their language...We want them to feel (they are) coming to another home." You can see the staff of Salina Elementary in action in the Colorín Colorado documentary You Are Welcome Here.

Wolfe Street Academy, MD

Sometimes, ensuring that families have language access takes additional detective work and legwork. At Wolfe Street Academy, in Baltimore, MD, the staff at the school noticed an uptick in special education referrals for their Spanish-speaking students, even though the assessments were conducted in Spanish. After some investigation, they realized that many of these students actually spoke Mixtec, an indigenous language from Mexico, as a first language and Spanish as a second language.

Since there is a stigma around speaking Mixtec, the families mainly operated in Spanish and never mentioned their Mixtecan language to the school staff. Once staff made this discovery, they learned a lot about the Mixtec and the dialects their families spoke, found more resources to support language access, and worked on creating a more positive culture around the language at the school to lessen the stigma. The school has made great progress; yet even now, when new families enroll at the school, many families who speak Mixtec don't indicate that they do when initially asked.

Closing Thoughts & Author Information

Ensuring that families receive equitable access to information and opportunities requires collaboration with all parties involved, clear communication while advocating, a commitment to equity, and ultimately, funding. By following the tips outlined above, teachers, administrators, bilingual staff, parents, and interpreters will make progress in this collective equity journey on behalf of our multilingual learners.

About the Authors

Jennifer Love, Ed.D., is Supervisor of Language Access and Engagement in Prince George's County Public Schools, Maryland. She has dedicated her career to education and engagement equity, elevating effective practices in language access and English learner family engagement. Dr. Love is also the former president of the Maryland ELL Family Involvement Network (MELLFIN). She has also developed a language access framework to support schools and school districts in creating meaningful and sustainable language access programs. Dr. Love holds a Doctorate of Education in Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Educational Leadership in Special Education, earned as part of a grant cohort of the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education. She also has a Master's degree in Foreign Language Education from Wake Forest University, where she also obtained her Bachelor's degree in Elementary Education and Spanish.

Laura Gardner founded Immigrant Connections in 2017. Laura has nearly 20 years of experience working in education, refugee resettlement, and social work. While in education, she worked as a district level manager for immigrant family and community engagement as well as a school social worker. Laura also worked for Bridging Refugee Youth and Children’s Services (BRYCS) managing their national technical assistance initiative to federal Refugee School Impact Grantees. Laura has facilitated professional development on building the capacity of teachers and school systems to engage immigrant families in their children’s education, language access, cultural competency, equity, unaccompanied immigrant children, immigrant family reunification, and refugee resettlement. Laura holds a Master’s degree in Social Work from Columbia University and a Bachelor’s degree in Education.


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