CHICAGO — Something bordering on the miraculous happened at my community high school the other night: The parents who speak only Spanish were included and respected in a meeting in a way that did not turn the whole thing into a big, fat mess.
In the past, the school district’s well-intentioned efforts to include non-English-speaking parents in assemblies had turned them into long, plodding exercises in maintaining focus through short bursts and long pauses.
A presenter would impart a message in chunks and a translator would repeat the information in Spanish. Invariably, the English speaker would go for way too long without breaking to let the translator catch up. Then the Spanish information would stream out, sometimes too quickly to understand.
The crowd would get shifty and exasperated because both audiences were waiting to hear the portion that was for them. The presentations would take twice as long as they would have in a single language, and some parents left agitated.
When piling out of the gymnasium or auditorium, it was not uncommon to hear loud complaints of English-only speakers of the sort that would usually be limited to behind-closed-doors harrumphing about school communications arriving home printed in two languages.
Such is life in a community that was once strictly blue-collar white and over the course of a very few years became 50 percent Hispanic. You don’t have to hang around the local coffee shops too long before you hear someone grousing that the signs on Main Street businesses are increasingly only in Spanish.
The dual-language school assemblies were a nightmare — at least half the crowd felt left out at any given moment — and it reinforced to longtime residents that their new neighbors were making things worse, not better.
So imagine my surprise when I attended a recent meeting in which the Spanish-speaking families were outfitted with discreet headsets streaming real-time translation from a school employee.
A quick check around the room showed an equally engaged audience that was seamlessly following the featured speaker and was given ample opportunity to ask questions in either language for immediate response.
No one sat glassy eyed for their turn to listen, no one grouched about how long it was taking and, best of all, I didn’t hear any snarky grumblings about how people “should learn to speak the language.”
I fully agree that parents of public schoolchildren should be responsible for making every attempt to speak the primary language of their community. I, too, wish that our financially struggling, academically failing schools weren’t further burdened by the intense needs of children and parents who can barely communicate in English.
But even when attacked with fervor, English-language acquisition doesn’t always happen quickly enough to make it possible for parents to actively participate in their child’s education without some help.
According to the National Education Policy Center’s just-released brief on English-language learners (ELLs) and parental involvement, these students mainly attend schools with few resources and low instructional capacities and have high communication barriers to overcome.
The No. 1 tonic for clearing those obstacles is strengthening parental involvement in school. Among many best-practice recommendations, such as recruiting ELL families as volunteers and audiences and including them in school governance, is the practice of providing translators for all key parent meetings.
As you can see, that’s easier said than done — even the best-intentioned solutions can end up feeling oppressive and divisive.
Thankfully, my school district realized how ineffective meetings had become and was able to find a workable solution to the tricky puzzle of maintaining a welcoming school environment for non-English speakers that avoids further segregating the community.
A district representative told me that the set-up had just arrived and I’d been among the first to witness the new system in action. And I was asked to make sure I told the school’s administration how much I liked it.
You see, such a system isn’t exactly cheap — and there are some who would make the argument that it was an investment that could have been made in other materials benefitting the entire student body.
But I’d disagree. The inconspicuous translation services benefit everyone. As far as I’m concerned, any system that both accommodates a second language and equally respects all the cultures present in a school community is worth its weight in gold.
Esther Cepeda is syndicated columnist and an NBC Latino Contributor.