Nothing lost in translation at Portland Public Schools

PPS translators (SBG photo)

Portland Public Schools has about 30 language translators on staff.

Russian, Spanish, Chinese, Somali - the list goes on, and they can turn it into English and turn it back around.

There's usually plenty of translators to go around, except at parent-teacher conference time.

You can see and hear the need at Harrison Park School, where less than half the families speak English as a first language.

"I know English is a barrier for many families, they feel disconnected" said Vietnamese translator Qui Nguyen.

"This is an opportunity for the entire family to be here. I always encourage parents to get involved, to get involved in school."

Too often though, the language barrier can keep families away.

Early in his career, new PPS Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero was a bi-lingual instructor, so he sees the importance of bridging the language gap.

"It's not just a language issue," said Guerrero, "It's culture, it's recognizing their traditions and values. We're a pluralistic district, and we want to make sure everyone is welcome and treated equitably."

PPS had more than 1,000 requests for translators for the most recent round of parent-teacher conferences.

Thao Tran put in a request, but for all three of her kids, so the actual number of translated meetings is likely much higher.

But, through translator Nguyen, Tran says it makes all the difference.

"This is a big help," said Tran. "I'm concerned about my kids in school, and this is the way I find out about what they're learning in school and ways I can help them at home."

One her daughters, seventh-grader Vi Mai, is happy her mom knows what she's doing in school.

"Then my mom can remind me of what I need to do," said Mai. "Sometimes I need to be told to finish my school work before I start doing other things, so that helps. And it's helping me with my English, and I really want to be able to speak English to talk with my friends and just be a normal American."

Harrison Park Social Studies teacher Ron Huff has seen the translation work wonders.

"I had a little Russian student, he didn't speak any English, and he was just in tears everyday, because he didn't know what to do," said Huff.

"We got him a translator, and now he goes home and practices his English every day and he's doing great."

Huff sees another benefit. When a teacher who doesn't speak the language had to rely on the student to translate, Huff says the message can get lost.

"A lot of times, a parent wouldn't get the whole story from their kids, they don't get all the information you need, if you know what I mean."

While the translators are available on call year-round, and contracted through about half-a-dozen vendors, they still are school employees and have to meet the same background qualifications as regular full-time teaching staff.

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