‘Limited English Proficient (LEP) parents have a legal right to have access to information in their preferred languages. This is not an optional service for the NYC Department of Education, it’s the law.’

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

A scene from the first day of school in September 2020 at Manhattan’s P.S. 188.

Frustrated parents across the city watched in distress last year as their children slipped further and further behind in school due to problems with remote learning, including unstable internet connections and devices and poor communication from their schools. For Limited English Proficient (LEP) parents, those obstacles were made even worse by the routine denial of language access by New York City schools which left them unable to help their children access platforms, remote plans, instructional materials, and academic support. Now, as we begin another school year, LEP families are worried that their children will continue to be denied the education they deserve unless the NYC Department of Education (NYCDOE) makes strides to fix the lack of language access support.

Take Jeffrey, a seven year old from Queens, who struggled last year because his mother, a Bengali speaker, only received materials and information about remote instruction in English. She repeatedly reached out to school staff to obtain language support in Bengali but received no such help. She watched as Jeffrey lost valuable instruction and became disengaged and detached from his class. Or Nancy, an eight year old from Queens, who struggled to learn English during the pandemic, grew frustrated with her other classes, and stopped participating in them. Her grandmother, a Spanish speaker, was repeatedly denied an interpreter by her granddaughter’s school even after she reached out to them.

Even LEP families whose children attended in-person learning last year struggled to receive timely information about class schedules, closed classrooms, COVID-19 testing, and schoolwork in their preferred language. Because of this, many parents found that they had missed opportunities or deadlines, or simply didn’t have critical information they needed about their children. Ms. M, a Spanish-speaking mother, received a call and a letter from the school informing her that two of her children had been in close contact to someone that tested positive for COVID-19 and that her children must be quarantined for two weeks. Both of these communications were in English only, leaving Ms. M with no clue as to the health and safety risks her children had experienced or what steps she had to take to safeguard them.

LEP parents and English Language Learner (ELL) students comprise more than 40 percent of all families enrolled in city public schools. Yet the NYCDOE continues to ignore its legal obligation to provide interpretation and translation services. Legal Services NYC even filed a lawsuit two years ago against the NYCDOE for its failure to provide language services to LEP families, but since the pandemic, things have only gotten worse.

NYCDOE’s current approach has been to centralize language access on its website and through its Translation and Interpretation Unit in the hopes that services trickle-down to families in need. School staff, however, regularly fail to use the Translation and Interpretation Unit or to offer LEP parents interpretation services, and many parents are unaware that they have the option to request them.

But with increased state and federal funding, NYC schools now have a real opportunity to invest in language access this year so immigrant and ELL students can get the education and support they deserve.

The NYCDOE must make sure that every school not only has access to quality interpretation and translation services, but that school staff are aware of their obligation to use these resources to communicate with LEP parents and provide language access support to ELL students. The NYCDOE must also develop direct, non-digital means to provide language support to families so that non-digitally savvy parents can access support, provide clear notices in schools for families to utilize these resources, and ensure that school staff respond to requests for translation in a timely manner, which in the time of Covid-19 is critical in ensuring the safety of students and families.

Now is the time for the NYCDOE to finally make a meaningful investment in language access for LEP parents and ELL students. LEP parents have a legal right to have access to information in their preferred languages. This is not an optional service for the NYCDOE, it’s the law. The NYCDOE must take steps to ensure that every student, regardless of the language they speak, has access to the same educational opportunities as other students.

Without this support, countless immigrant and LEP families and ELL students across the city will continue to fall further behind and continue to be denied the education they deserve.

Leipziger is a senior staff attorney in the Queens office of Legal Services NYC, the nation’s largest provider of free civil legal services to low-income communities across New York City.

One thought on “Opinion: This Year, NYC Schools Must Invest in Language Access to Help Immigrant Students Catch Up

  1. Absolutely not. At the turn of the century immigrants from all over came to America. There was no ESL or English learner designation. You jumped in with both feet & learned to speak English, some immigrant families going so far as to ban native languages saying “we’re in America now, we speak English.” We should not be in a position where we spoon feed things to people who chose to come here. Clearly they’re were motivated and so that should drive them to learn the language . That there are so many who have lives here for years & remain incapable of speaking so the government, schools, etc are forced to provide interpretations in tens of languages at a cost of millions is nothing short of outrageous and a waste.

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