For Many Parents, Schools Are Lost in Translation

CAA's parent leaders learn about the importance of voter registration from each other. Photo credit: CAA

All parents have a desire to see their children succeed in school, and that often requires being engaged in day-to-day schoolwork and extracurricular activities. However, for parents whose first language is not English, getting involved can be hard, if not impossible.

For several years, CAA has been working to address this problem by supporting Chinese-speaking parents of public school children in San Francisco. The needs are great: in a recent Chinese-language listening session with New America Media at our offices in Chinatown, we and reporters heard dozens of stories from parents whose experiences of schools are being “lost in translation.”

For example, Warren Wong has a son in a San Francisco public school. His son participates in an “English Language Learner” program, which means he receives classroom instruction in Chinese as he learns English to catch up with his peers. English Language Learner programs are mandated by both federal and state laws, which passed as a result of lawsuits, including those initiated by CAA.  Most well known of these is the foundational Supreme Court case, Lau v. Nichols, which, in 1974, led to the requirement that all students must be given equal educational opportunities under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

But despite the Lau v. Nichols victory, equal educational opportunity for many remains unfulfilled.  Though schools must provide students who are limited-English proficient with “effective learning pathways and specialized programs and services, staffing and professional development, and parent outreach and involvement,” most parents tell us repeatedly that their children are not receiving the proper language support.  Sometimes this means students are sitting in the back of a classroom without any understanding of what the teacher is saying.

To compound the problem, parents themselves are not receiving language support. Another parent, Un Un Che, has three children in SFUSD.  When she noticed her eldest daughter playing video games at home instead of doing homework, she asked for a meeting with her daughter’s teacher. The teacher, who only speaks English, and Un Un, who speaks primarily Chinese, were not able to access an interpreter who, in turn, would have allowed them to effectively communicate about Un Un’s daughter’s education and coordinate to come up with a positive plan together.

One parent advocate shared,

“When I was a new immigrant, I didn’t understand what my rights were within the U.S. legal system. With my limited-English skills, I felt very vulnerable. But through my training in the Parent Advocates Program, I understand what are my rights, and I feel encouraged to speak out. It’s important for parents to unite together because the power of the collective cannot be defeated.”

CAA continues to press elected and school officials to comply with the law mandating assistance for these immigrant parents and their children.  Part of this effort includes the CAA Parent Advocates program, which recruits and trains limited-English speaking parents to advocate for school policies that are more inclusive of immigrant parents like themselves.  The program has graduated dozens of parents who have successfully secured more school funding for translation services, convinced school officials to meet the needs of all students, and encouraged immigrant parents to speak up for themselves and their children. This year marks the tenth year of CAA parent advocates graduating from such leadership training.

Learn more about CAA’s recent activities.