Approximately 5 million students in US schools have limited English language skills that affect their ability to successfully participate in education programs. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires that thereby no discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin in the operation of any federally assisted programs.
Under this law, it is the responsibility of the schools to ensure that all students have equal access to a quality education that enables them to progress academically while learning English.
The Office for Civil Rights and the Department of Education released a memo in 1970 clarifying a broad outline of the services to be provided. The memo stated:
“Where the inability to speak and understand the English language excludes national origin minority group children from effective participation in the educational program offered by a school district, the district must take affirmative steps to rectify the language deficiency in order to open its instructional program to these students.”
Although the memo requires school districts to take steps, it does not outline exact practices to provide equal opportunities to a diverse and multilingual community. It does, however, explain the federal law is violated if:
- Students are excluded from effective participation in school because of their inability to speak and understand the language of instruction;
- National origin minority students are inappropriately assigned to special education classes because of their lack of English skills;
- Programs for students whose English is less than proficient are not designed to teach them English as soon as possible, or if these programs operate as a dead-end track; or
- Parents whose English is limited do not receive school notices or other information in a language they can understand.
The US has an ever-growing population that speaks many languages besides English. On the popular blog Wait, What? by Jonathan Pelto, he describes an “achievement gap” in the American school system:
“Due to the country’s failure to address the growing level of poverty, the increasing number of children facing language barriers and the growing level of unaddressed special education needs, America has an achievement gap.
American children who are not poor, do not face language barriers and do not have unaddressed special education needs do much better on standardized tests than those who face those challenges.”
How can schools best address this increasing gap and support their diverse student bodies? The suggestions below are opportunities to create internal support within each school system.
Use technology to your advantage
- 4 out of 5 students agree that digital learning technology has a positive impact on their grades for which the following are the numbers:
- 84% of students report that the use of technology improves their education.
- 81% report that digital learning technology helps save them time and be more efficient.
- 81% claim that digital learning technology is helping them boost their grades.
Although the report does not explicitly address language barriers, it’s clear that a majority of respondents believe that digital learning technology is beneficial. As with any content that is distributed digitally, translation of said courses/study materials/etc. is not far off. Staying on top of these trends and providing an equal platform for learning will be extremely beneficial to students of all languages and backgrounds in experiencing equal education and progress.
Educate staff on multiculturalism
While it seems simple and obvious, educating staff on how to work with students of different cultures and backgrounds is extremely effective. The better the educators understand their students, the better they can serve them in and out of the classroom with help, encouragement, and support. Ines Marquez Chisholm writes in a report titled “Preparing Teachers for Multicultural Classrooms”:
“Cultural diversity poses a pedagogical and social challenge to educators. Teaching effectively in culturally diverse classrooms means using culturally sensitive strategies and content to ensure equitable opportunities for academic success, personal development, and individual fulfillment for all students. Teachers need to be “knowledgeable about how minority children perceive the world, and process and organize information”. Culture and gender influence not only our values, beliefs, and social interactions, but also how we view the world, what we consider important, what we attend to, and how we learn and interpret information. Furthermore, the effect of ethnicity on cognitive and motivational styles within an ethnic group persists across social-class segments”
Establish procedures for staff
In conjunction with educating staff on multiculturalism, it is important to have reference documents available outlining the federal requirements, procedures, language service options, etc. Two great examples of this are:
- Refugee Children in U.S. Schools: A Toolkit for Teachers and School Personnel
- This booklet is a great example of a resource for school systems. This was created by an organization called Bridging Refugee Youth & Children’s Services supported for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. School systems do not necessarily have to create everything on their own, there are already plenty of resources available to share with their staff.
- Providing Language Access Services for Limited English Proficient Parents in Washington Schools
- This extensive report outlines a wide range of material varying from defining language access services to demographics of local areas to feedback from parent groups and of course requesting language services for schools.
Hire bilingual staff
Hiring new staff who speak languages that are in need is a great option for school districts and universities. Having bilingual staff readily available is very beneficial to both students, parents, and other teachers/staff that may be working with the students.
Buffalo Public Schools in New York recently started offering services in 85 different languages for immigrants and refugees who enroll in school by hiring multilingual staff. One major thing to keep in mind when hiring staff because they speak multiple languages is their proficiency in said language. Just because a person says that are able to speak Spanish, for example, doesn’t mean they have full professional proficiency in Spanish. Keep in mind how they may be interacting with students and family and what level of proficiency may be necessary.
What can you do when hiring bilingual staff just isn’t feasible? Bring in the support of a third-party vendor who provides professional language services. Most language service providers offer solutions specifically for educational institutions. Below is a brief overview of the most common services used throughout schools and universities.
In Person Interpreting
In person interpreters are scheduled in advance for meetings, parent-teacher conferences, evaluations, graduations, etc. In person interpreting is available for spoken languages as well as American Sign Language for deaf or hard of hearing students. Each language service company may have different language options so be sure to request a full language list before deciding to work with a company. Reputable companies will work with high-quality interpreters who are experienced working with children, parents, and in an education setting.
Remote Interpreting Options
There are some situations where an in person interpreter is not necessary or an emergency situation where there is no time to find one. In these instances, over the phone interpreting and/or video remote interpreting can help to save the day.
Over the phone interpreting gives you access to interpreters over the phone 24/7/365. Most services available offer you a standard 800 number with an access code which will give you access to hundreds of languages in seconds.
Video remote interpreting (VRI) is similar to a Skype call but over an encrypted platform that connects you to qualified professional interpreters. VRI is especially useful for deaf or hard of hearing students as the visual aspect gives access to ASL interpreters within minutes.
Most organizations choose to use a combination of services for the different situations that arise. Each language services company you approach most likely has a slightly different way of doing things so be sure to ask a lot of questions!
CART / C-Print
CART stands for Communication Access Real-time Translation and is an extremely beneficial innovation for the deaf or hard of hearing community in school. CART is most easily described as subtitles for live discussions. Spoken language is translated instantaneously into text and displayed in various forms such as on a computer. A CART writer can either sit in the classroom with the student of work remotely via a high powered microphone strategically placed in the classroom. While CART is an exact transcription of the entire class word for word, C-Print summarizes the conversation or lecture. It’s similar to an electronic note-taking system designed to provide a meaning for meaning transcription.
While interpreting and CART work with the spoken word, document translation encompasses anything that is written in either print or digitally. For schools, this is beneficial for letters to parents, emails, tests/quizzes, brochures, forms, and any legal documents. It is wise to always use a professional agency to translate any type of document to ensure accuracy. Especially with legal documents, there is no room for error when sending home documents in multiple languages. Follow this link for more information on how to choose the best translation agency.
Clearly, there are countless options for improving the quality of education across multilingual groups of students. What do you think is the most important thing for educators to keep in mind when working with a diverse group? How can we continue to improve the quality of our education system with an increasingly growing population of non-English speakers? Please let us know in the comment section below!
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