Language Gap Mars Parent-Teacher Chats Federal law requires school districts to provide interpreters for parent-teacher conferences. But demand far outstrips the state and federal funds provided. How are schools adapting?
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Language Gap Mars Parent-Teacher Chats

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Language Gap Mars Parent-Teacher Chats

Language Gap Mars Parent-Teacher Chats

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It's the time of year when mothers and fathers go back to school to attend routine parent-teacher conferences. But for parents who don't speak English, staying on top of a child's education is anything but routine. Elisabeth Wynne Johnson of the Northwest News Network visited a school in Eastern Washington State and reports on the growing role of school interpreters.

ELISABETH WYNNE JOHNSON: On a recent afternoon at Whitman Elementary in Spokane, mother and teacher meet to chat in the first grade classroom. They fold themselves into kid-sized chairs. Teacher Jenna Hollenbeck pulls out a progress report for eight-year-old German Tischenko.

Ms. JENNA HOLLENBECK (Teacher, Whitman Elementary): Well, let's get started on German. He is doing a good job at his work habits; in fact, he was very good at listening and following directions.

Ms. VERA PUZANKOVA (Interpreter): (Speaking foreign language)

JOHNSON: That's interpreter Vera Puzankova, a bilingual specialist employed by the school district. Federal civil rights guidelines direct schools in every state to provide interpreters for parent-teacher conferences. Without Puzankova, Oksana Tischenko wouldn't be having this conversation.

Ms. OKSANA TISCHENKO: (Speaking foreign language)

JOHNSON: Through the interpreter, Tischenko says her family recently fled southern Uzbekistan to get away from exploding bombs in nearby Afghanistan.

Ms. TISCHENKO: (Through translator) First of all, it is beautiful. It is comfortable place to live and - what is more important, it is safe place to live.

JOHNSON: Like much of the U.S., the inland Northwest is becoming increasingly diverse. School hallways in Spokane ring with almost 50 foreign languages: Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese. Russian, though, is by far the most common. Howard de Leeuw oversees English language programs for the district. In his world, to meet the needs of kids, you also have to meet the needs of their parents.

Mr. HOWARD DE LEEUW (English Programs, Spokane School District): Parents know their children best. They want what's best for their children. If we don't allow them to speak in a language that they're most comfortable with, then we're bordering on doing a disservice to parents if we have the option to provide the first-language support.

JOHNSON: That gets harder every year. In the Spokane school district, federal and state funding covers only about a third of what it costs to provide this and other services for English-language learners. The district makes up the difference.

Mr. DE LEEUW: Sustainable? No, that's why we have a deficit this year in our district, and we'll have a deficit next year in our district.

JOHNSON: School districts throughout the nation have ongoing tussles with state lawmakers over this type of partially funded mandate. In the meantime, to get creative, some schools recruit and train bilingual parents to volunteer as liaisons to bridge cultural and linguistic gaps for those newly arrived.

CEO of the National Parent Teacher Association, Warlene Gary, says this is the way of the future.

Ms. WARLENE GARY (CEO, National Parent Teacher Association): More people are going to have to pitch in to make this happen. Is it the right way to do things? No. Is it a necessity? Yes. We don't have time to wait until we get every dollar, or get every program in place to help parents help their kids.

JOHNSON: Back in the classroom, mother of four Oksana Tischenko is grateful to have an interpreter by her side as she asks how she can help her son, German, with his homework.

Ms. TISCHENKO: (Speaking foreign language)

Ms. PUZANKOVA: She's asking your advice, your teacher's advice, how she, as a mother, can assist him with the spelling course.

JOHNSON: An eight-year-old's improved spelling is a small victory that takes place in the undersized world of a first grade classroom.

Ms. HOLLENBECK: Okay, thank you.

Ms. PUZANKOVA: Thank you.

JOHNSON: Whether there will be more small victories will depend on whether creativity picks up where education budgets leave off.

For NPR News, I'm Elisabeth Wynne Johnson in Spokane, Washington.

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