Sayda Alverto, a mother who resides in Stamford and speaks only Spanish, said it took five years before she found out that her son had been removed from classes for students learning English and placed in general classes.
“Nobody in the school told me about my son’s progress and I am a mom that is very involved in the children’s education,” Alverto wrote in testimony to the Education Committee.
Parents like Alverto are asking for an English Language Learners Bill of Rights that would require school districts to provide information in the language they speak and to keep them updated on their students’ language-learning progress. Many of the parents who spoke at a hearing at the Capitol on Wednesday were members of Make the Road Connecticut, an advocacy organization that works with Spanish-speaking residents of Bridgeport and Hartford.
The bill would require, among other things, that districts provide a certified translator for parent-teacher conferences and meetings with administrators, that students be allowed to participate in a bilingual education program if there were 20 or more students in the district, and that parents are given information about their child’s options for English as a second language or bilingual education. It would also affirm the right of students to enroll in public school regardless of their immigration status.
According to Connecticut State Department of Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker, there are more than 45,000 students who speak a language other than English in the state.
Parents told stories about calling school offices and not being able to reach anyone who spoke Spanish, receiving documents that were written only in English and attending meetings where translation wasn’t available. Others talked about discovering that their children were removed from bilingual classes without their knowledge.
Yorelys Cardenas, a Hartford parent whose primary language is Spanish, said that her daughter had been transferred out of her school’s bilingual program without anyone notifying her. She said that she was not given any kind of documentation showing that her scores were high enough for her to start attending classes in English.
“During the time that my daughter was in the bilingual program, I never received information on how these programs worked, how long they lasted, much less how it was decided when a student could be transferred from the bilingual program to regular classes,” said Cardenas.
The majority of the people who testified were from the districts of Hartford, Bridgeport and Stamford. According to state data, about 23 percent of students in Bridgeport and 22 percent in Hartford are English language learners, compared to 8.8 percent statewide.
The parents said the lack of translated information made it difficult for them to be involved in their child’s schooling, particularly when their students are struggling academically or need special education services.
Dora Beltran, a Stamford parent and Spanish-speaker, said that she was told her child needed speech therapy, but that when he started kindergarten, the district mistook his speech needs for needing English as a Second Language. She said that she received her son’s Individual Education Plan, a 15-20 page packet, completely written in English. She also said that the school failed to provide her with adequate translation for meetings.
“In the [special education team] meetings, I communicated with the school’s facilitator and she told me that she could no longer be present as a translator because the school would not allow it, but that there would be someone on the phone translating. In the last [special education team meeting] the phone translation wasn’t successful because the line dropped and I could not hear what the person was translating on the phone,” Beltran wrote.
Another parent, Nestor Maldonado, said he went to his son’s school to talk about his son’s struggles to succeed academically because English was not his first language. Eventually, he brought a Spanish-speaking attorney from Greater Hartford Legal Aid to a special education team meeting. He said that he and the attorney both noticed that the interpreter present was not translating correctly.
“Not having someone who is qualified to translate from English to Spanish made me wonder how many times have I sat in these PPT’s without legal representation present, and told the incorrect translations from English to Spanish,” Maldonado wrote in his testimony.
Russell-Tucker said the state Department of Education and the school districts had already been working on addressing these issues for a number of years, and that this bill was focused on codifying those protections.
State Rep. Antonio Felipe, D-Bridgeport, said that the bill originally had a provision that would have allowed students living in districts that didn’t have the necessary resources to transfer to a district that had more resources for students learning English. He asked if it would be possible to do that in the future.
Russell-Tucker said the State Department of Education would look at ways to better share resources across districts.
A few people said they were concerned about the requirement for a “certified translator.” State Rep. Devin Carney, R – Old Saybrook, said that one of the towns he represented had a large Brazilian community that spoke Portuguese.
“Sometimes, from what I’m told, it can be very difficult to find the amount of people really necessary to help the number of children that speak Portuguese as their first language,” said Carney. He asked how the districts could find the necessary people to translate in these languages.
Irene Parisi, the state’s Chief Academic Officer, said there are services that a district could contract with to provide translation services. She said that they wanted to make sure that the individuals providing services were certified professionals who understood the language, and that districts were not relying on Google Translate. However, she did not rule out the possibility of a family member providing translation.
Russell-Tucker said this was not a new situation for many districts, and that they would continue to work with the districts.
“It is about not making excuses for supporting our English learners in our state,” said Russell-Tucker.