April 25, 2005
When a principal needs to converse with a student’s Spanish-speaking parent, help is usually no more than a room or two away. Many teachers and staff members speak Spanish.
But when parents speak one of the 62 other languages represented in the Scottsdale Unified School District — for example, Mai Mai, which is spoken in Somalia — things can get a little more complicated.
As new groups of immigrants and refugees move to the East Valley, schools are no longer only grappling with how to communicate in Spanish.
Now they must also worry about communicating in Arabic, Farsi, Cambodian, Bosnian and Assyrian, just to name a few.
Federal laws monitored by the Office of Civil Rights demand that school districts provide the same information to all parents, regardless of whether they speak English. The Scottsdale district uses on-call consultants to translate for the five most commonly spoken languages in the district — Spanish, French, Russian, Arabic and Farsi.
For other children, such as refugees from Somalia and Sudan, the schools use interpreters from the social service agencies that sponsored the families, said Tavan Elementary School principal Margaret Serna.
"We need translators, especially for an emergency, like if a child gets lost while riding on the bus," Serna said.
But even those interpreters are not easy to find.
Elizabeth Kloehr, Tavan’s community specialist, finally found an interpreter who speaks Mai Mai last week. She handed out a sheet of paper to some teachers with common phrases such as "welcome to our school" in the language.
The school is using a Somalian student who speaks some English to translate for other students.
Isse Sadi, a fourthgrader, has attended Tavan since fall, and his English skills have already come a long way, Kloehr said.
Last week, Isse helped a kindergarten teacher tell one of the students to behave better. He also helped explain to another child how to use permission slips for fields trips, and he has helped translate for his new classmate, Isha Abdi, who moved to Scottsdale mere weeks ago.
"He really helps us out," Kloehr said.
In the Paradise Valley Unified School District, 48 languages are represented among the district’s 3,146 English learners, making it impossible to hire interpreters to speak each language, district officials said.
To help remedy interpretation troubles, the schools last fall turned to a service called the Language Line, an international telephonic interpreter and translation agency.
The company, which charges between $1.50 and $2 per minute, offers interpretive services for 161 languages, from German and Arabic to more uncommon languages like Chaldean, Basque and Yoruba.
"It could be an indigenous language in Mexico or in Africa, this just really allows us to reach out," said AnaMarîa Bambarén-Call, who works in the district’s language acquisition department.
Once, she needed to find an interpreter who spoke Mixteco, an indigenous language from southern Mexico.
It took some work, but Language Line found someone who spoke it. District officials said they now feel confident they can find interpreters quickly — in an average of 11 seconds, said Lorraine Hendershott, the language acquisition director.
"We’ll get someone who calls and says, who here speaks Punjabi?"
Hendershott said. "Well, no one does. But we find someone in less than a minute."
Paradise Valley also uses the Language Line to translate newsletters, letters to parents and transcripts from other countries.
Government entities like the telephonic interpretation rather than translation because it provides anonymity when dealing with sensitive topics.
"If you are in Scottsdale and you have a small group of Somalis, you don’t want someone from your small community translating for a problem and then running into you at the Safeway the next day," Learning Line spokesman Dale Hansman said.
The Scottsdale district is contemplating using Language Line next year, too, said Cathy Rivera, Scottsdale’s director of English immersion programs.
Even then, teachers will still need to depend on the cooperation of refugee agencies and helpful students like Isse. There are more than 6,000 languages in the world that Language Line does not offer.