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A Change in Interpretation

January 20, 2002

Some school districts in the county take the shortsighted approach when it comes to involving its non-English-speaking parents in school board sessions and giving them a voice in educational issues.

The rationale goes something like this: We don't get a lot of Spanish-speaking parents at our school board meetings; no one is clamoring for an interpreter, and to have one would be an added expense. So, we won't have an interpreter unless there is a greater demand. To be sure, not having an interpreter does save money. But at what price to effective communication? Should parents struggling with the English language not be able to express the same concerns and ask questions about their children's education as English-speaking parents?

Orange County's ethnic makeup is changing, as the federal census so graphically showed. Various ethnic groups now make up 49% of the county population--and in 10 cities within the county, they are now the majority.

Latino residents are the largest minority group in the county. And the Asian population is the fastest-growing. In some schools, Latino and Asian students make up 90% or more of the total enrollment.

It's time more school districts recognized the changes and changed too.

Santa Ana has. Several years ago, it began providing a Spanish interpreter at school board meetings. An interpreter is also available for other school meetings and for Vietnamese and Cambodian parents. The district's paper goes into students' homes in three languages.

And at its last school board meeting, the Newport-Mesa Unified School District began providing an interpreter for its Spanish-speaking audience.

What they have realized is that the lack of many Latino and Asian parents at board meetings is not because of a lack of interest. It's because of the lack of an interpreter.

Many parents struggling with English may feel embarrassed about addressing the board and find it difficult to have a real dialogue when language is a barrier on both sides.

With an interpreter, they can fully understand what board members are saying and can better express their opinions.

That will increase not only understanding and communication but attendance as well.

More districts ought to take a look at the number of English-deficient students they have and reconsider their reluctance to provide an interpreter for parents eager to get involved in their children's education--if they could get around the language barrier.

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