By Andrew Dafoe CHI™
If I had to pick a defining word for the year 2020, at the top of my list would be crisis. It really became what felt like a never ceasing stream of natural disasters, global pandemics, the resulting economic downturns, political divisiveness, and racial injustices. Collectively, we’ve experienced and continue to experience more crises than could be listed here.
Unfortunately, New Orleans is a city that is no stranger to crisis. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina ripped through this beautiful city leaving a path of destruction on an unrivaled scale. The storm and its subsequent flooding decimated what was an already struggling public school system. Just two years prior, the Recovery School District had been formed to take control of failing schools. In the aftermath of the storm, the Louisiana Department of Education reports that
“…the Louisiana Legislature took action to hand over the majority of Orleans Parish public schools to the state Recovery School District (RSD)… This action led to the RSD directly operating dozens of schools and overseeing many Type 5 charter schools from November 2005 through June 2018, when the legislatively-approved unification of schools with the Orleans Parish School Board became effective.”
The Orleans parish School Board is now encompassed by NOLA Public Schools, and in 2019 became an “all-charter system” and “the first large American city to not offer a single traditional public school.”
The results of this charter experiment have been widely debated. However, the uniqueness of this educational environment is clear. A question that I believe has often been overlooked in outcome analyses, is how Language Access and Language Services are being affected within this pioneering “all charter system”.
While NOLA Public Schools promises to offer Language assistance for families visiting the Central Office, their website states that if families require assistance at their specific school, that school will use “site-based resources” to fulfill language service requests.
NOLA PS offers charter schools a Translation Services Summary of Expectations in the accountability resources page. This summary highlights key best practices regarding home language surveys, LEP databases, and provision of services through “approved, competent, and trained translators and interpreters.” It does not, however, clarify who should approve, train or deem those professionals as competent. Nor does it offer any clear guidance on how individual schools should acquire the services of those individuals, let alone budget and pay for them.
So that begs the question, how are schools handling this? Who are they using as interpreters and translators? While some schools have been able to recognize these needs and were quick to implement comprehensive language services and access plans, many have no doubt struggled. And even schools that recognize the need for professionals, have faced difficulties in procurement and implementation.
Any interpreter who has worked in the educational setting knows how difficult it can be, due in part to the specialized terminology that is so common to LEAs (Local Education Agencies, for everyone outside of the Education world) and individual schools.
504, SPED, IEPs, FAPE, LSB, BESE, RSD, and LDE are just some of the common acronyms an interpreter would regularly encounter here in Louisiana, and there could be a limitless amount more depending on the state, district and even the individual school.
All of these factors result in a need for specialization by interpreters and translators. An experienced and qualified medical interpreter simply cannot walk into an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) meeting and accurately understand and render all terms being used. There are also ethical and procedural issues at play that are unique to the educational setting.
I found myself asking, both as an interpreter and as the owner of a Language Services Company, how can we address these issues? How can we work to implement truly best practices so that families and students with Limited English Proficiency have meaningful access to the educational systems that they are guaranteed by Federal Law?
So I started to research. It did not take long to find out that these questions are often asked outside of our unique New Orleans bubble. These are questions that school and district administrators struggle with across the nation and those struggles come, in part, due to the fact that there has not previously been any national initiative to recognize the educational specialization for interpreters and translators, disseminate information and provide guidance on training.
Both legal and medical interpreting have been able to set themselves apart, acknowledging the specificity, specialized training and skill sets needed for practitioners to be appropriately qualified. It was the search for similar models that led me to the American Association of Interpreters and Translators in Education or AAITE (previously the ITE workgroup). Everyone in AAITE has been working hard over the last year and a half to establish a foundation for the recognition and professionalization of the interpreter and translator roles in k-12 Local Education Agencies, create nationally recognized best practices, ethics and standards for the profession and develop and offer professional development opportunities for practitioners in the field. It’s my hope that this association and other national initiatives will help to offer guidance for school administrators and staff who are often already overwhelmed with compliance issues.
Crisis has a tendency to highlight, like nothing else can, already existing inequities and systemic problems. Often, there is no single solution, but I challenge the ATA and its members to take advantage of the clarity that can be gained from this turmoil, and to work collectively through both local and national initiatives to rebuild those systems so that they are accessible to all.
Andrew Dafoe received his B.A. from Tulane University in Psychology and Spanish. He then received his certificate in Healthcare and Legal Translation and Interpreting from Loyola University, New Orleans and became one of the first of 10 Louisiana Supreme Court Certified Spanish Interpreters. Andrew is also a Certified Healthcare InterpreterTM. He founded TNOLA Languages in 2014 which has grown to become a leading Language Service Provider in the American Gulf South, and serves on the board of the AAITE.
Image of Louisiana’s bayou by Rene Rauschenberger via Pixabay
The ATA Interpreters Division website offers a wide range of services for its members, including the Blog, a Resources page, and a Discussion forum. Members are also invited to join in the conversation on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn!