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State lawmakers aim to improve public-school interpretation services for parents

Seattle Public Schools
A Seattle Public Schools flyer about language access services

Navigating the public school system can be daunting for families with limited knowledge of English. Some state lawmakers have introduced legislation to help those families get the interpretation assistance they need.

Parents have a right under state and federal law to get information about their kids’ education in a language they can understand, but advocates say that doesn’t always happen.

Joy Sebe is the advocacy and civic engagement program lead with the group Open Doors for Multicultural Families, which helps immigrant and refugee parents who have children with disabilities. She said there’s a big need for school systems to offer better language interpretation services, but the families who need it have a hard time advocating in English.

“They don’t have the supports in place to voice their needs," Sebe said, "so their voices continue to be silenced and unheard." 

Roughly 1 in 7 people in Washington state was born outside of the United States, and more than 200 different languages are spoken in the homes of schoolchildren.

Democratic Rep. Tina Orwall is the lead sponsor of a bill that would require the state superintendent’s office to provide more assistance to school districts on improving interpretation and translation services. Orwall, who represents a district in South King County, said she’s heard immigrant parents describe how hard it is to have meetings about special education services for their children when they can’t communicate fully in English.

“I was just concerned because, as a parent, I know those are very hard to navigate and I couldn’t imagine how difficult those would be if you didn’t have the materials translated or didn’t have an interpreter available to help you in the meetings,” Orwall said.

Orwall said that sometimes students are asked to interpret for their parents. Advocates say that’s highly problematic because students shouldn’t have to be the go-between in sensitive meetings about their own discipline issues or learning disabilities. Orwall said this is her fourth attempt to create this kind of legislation, but she’s hopeful it will gain traction this year.

One part of Orwall’s bill would require development of curriculum for interpreters so they’re more familiar with school issues, for example, concerning truancy or special education. Sebe said that’s important because it can be hard for interpreters to jump in when they don’t have a strong enough background in education terminology and systems.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.