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How Can Immigrant Families Address Language Barriers in Schools?

How Can Immigrant Families Address Language Barriers in Schools?

Children need their education, and they need the experiences that come along with going to school. But many children around Philadelphia have difficulties fitting in when they do not speak the same language as their classmates or their teachers. This creates a significant barrier to a child’s ability to learn and feel like a member of the community.

The language barrier also presents challenges to parents, even if their child assimilates well. Parents may find themselves excluded from key pieces of their child’s schooling, simply because of their inability to speak the same language.

Persistent Problems

Parents who do not speak English face persistent challenges with their child’s education across Philadelphia. Many parents complain that the school requires their own children to be translators, an act prohibited by federal law. This puts children in an awkward position, especially if they must convey information about their poor school performance. Also, it should also not be a child’s responsibility to participate in their parents’ school meetings and conferences.

Parents also find issues getting accurate information if their child is being bullied. They obviously see a change in their child at home and understand that something is wrong. However, if their child will not tell them, the parents may not be able to get in touch with someone at the school who speaks their language, leaving them in the dark about what is happening with their child at school.

The COVID-19 pandemic presented even more difficulties for parents when it came time for children to return to in-person schooling. Parents whose children were not vaccinated had reasonable fears about sending their children back to school. But many schools did not provide adequate language assistance for virtual settings, giving parents little choice but to send their child back to in-person learning to give them the best chance of gaining the full value of their education.

For parents whose children bring home paperwork written in English, many must spend hours translating those documents into their native language to understand what the school is trying to tell them. Although some area schools have begun the practice of sending documents home in another language, that is usually limited to Spanish. That practice helps some but continues to alienate others.

Another issue parents face is when they have a special-needs child and have to discuss schooling with a teacher or administrator. Even if the school provides them with a translator, many translators want to have special knowledge of the subject they are translating so they are certain to use the right words. If a translator knows nothing about special-needs children or their education, they may refuse to translate, continuing to leave the parent in the dark. Often, parents will need to have friends come and translate for them, a practice that breaches confidentiality and puts their friend in an awkward situation.

Many immigrant parents feel like they are being bullied themselves. They feel bullied into learning English, bullied into not fully participating in their child’s school, bullied into feeling like they are not entitled to know what is happening in their child’s life. This situation excludes immigrant parents. With about one quarter of all Philadelphia households speaking a language other than English at home, changes are necessary.

Federal Action

The federal government has been fielding complaints about this issue for many years. Philadelphia is slightly above the national average for households that speak a language other than English at home, but not by far. The national average is about 22 percent. In fact, according to an area survey conducted at the start of the pandemic, immigrant families’ biggest concern was meeting their basic needs, followed by 99 percent of them listing their child’s schooling as the second most worrisome issue they faced. This included concerns about technology, as virtual schooling was quickly becoming the norm, including how to get a laptop and how to communicate with teachers who only spoke English.

Federal guidelines, unfortunately, do not mandate that schools provide translators or staff who speak the language of every parent. They also do not specify how many translators or staff need to be hired.

What the federal government has done, however, is provide clear policies on how parents and schools get language help, and how to inform parents about their child’s schooling in their own language and provide them with the same communication English-speaking parents receive in their native language.

What is even more frustrating to parents is that they are not often aware of the rights they do have. For example, when a child gets into a fight at school, that requires immediate communication to all parents. English-speaking parents often receive a prompt phone call and head to the school quickly to make sure their child is alright. That is not always the case with non-English-speaking parents.

Some parents in this situation have not even received a call, but instead received written communication of an incident. The problem is the written communication is in English. Immigrant parents often are not aware of their rights, specifically that they should receive prompt information that they can understand without the help of their child as translator.

Parenting is difficult enough, especially dealing with many different challenges children face at school. This is one area in which school can and should do better for immigrant parents. Education is important for all children. Parents should be kept informed of their child’s educational progress and any issues they may face. Philadelphia area schools must do a better job of increasing their resources to help parents who do not speak English. They have just as much right as English-speaking parents to know what is going on with their child’s schooling.

Philadelphia Immigration Lawyers at MC Law Group, LLC Assist Migrant Families Seeking a New Life in the United States

Families from across the globe come here in hopes for a better life. The experienced Philadelphia immigration lawyers at MC Law Group, LLC are here to help you achieve your goal and make the process of coming to a new country easier. Call us at 215-496-0690 or contact us online today to schedule a free consultation. Located in Philadelphia, we serve clients throughout the tri-state area, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and nationwide.

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