A new parents group representing immigrant families wants local school boards to make language services and bilingual education a priority so that they can be fully involved in their kids’ education.

Share story

Nearly a quarter of the students in Seattle Public Schools live in families whose home language is not English.

Many of their parents struggle with English, even if the children speak it well.

Federal law requires that all critical communication between schools and families be conducted in English and a student’s home language so that parents can play a meaningful role in their children’s education.

But many immigrant parents in Seattle and several South King County school districts say such services are inconsistent, inadequate and mired in bureaucracy.

A new group of parents organized by OneAmerica, a statewide immigrant-rights group, are calling on local school boards to pass policies making improved language services and bilingual education a priority.

Parents have already spoken out at recent board meetings in the Federal Way and Highline school districts, and they plan to speak Wednesday to the Seattle School Board.

“The School Board policy is a first step,” said Roxana Norouzi, OneAmerica’s education-policy director.

And parents want to help shape that policy by sharing what’s working and not working for them.

“It is a very complex thing, but often our community members have the answers,” Norouzi said.

The governor’s education ombudsman’s office confirmed many of the parents’ concerns last year in a 229-page report that found that interpretation is often provided by untrained district staff when it’s provided at all, and sometimes districts are so desperate they rely on the children to interpret for their parents.

That’s a big problem in special education, where even the certified interpreters usually aren’t trained to explain lingo that is complicated, even in English.

“We do not want to share all of that important information with somebody who probably doesn’t understand the vocabulary,” said Teresa Garcia, a Spanish-speaking parent in Federal Way who recently addressed the Federal Way School Board.

“That is another thing we are advocating for: interpreters who have the right level of knowledge to be able to help the parents correctly,” she said.

Garcia, originally from Mexico, moved from Arizona to Federal Way in 2012, when she was still learning English. In Arizona, it was common for school staff to speak Spanish, but in Federal Way it was harder to find someone at her kids’ schools who could explain things in her language.

“I felt really bad because I had a lot of questions about how I have to enroll my kids in the school, all the classes, how it’s going to be for them,” Garcia said.

She has two children in the Federal Way district, a fifth-grader and a high-school senior, who are growing up bilingual.

Garcia is one of 30 core members in the OneAmerica parents group, which was organized as part of a $500,000 grant the organization received two years ago from the Kellogg Foundation.

Its reach, primarily in the Somali and Latino communities, includes 100 to 150 parents, Norouzi said.

The group also represents parents who speak Mandarin Chinese, and their experience at the last Seattle School Board meeting underscores the frustration of many immigrant families.

They had requested and received a Mandarin interpreter for the board meeting, but that person interpreted only what the parents were saying to the board members, not the other way around.

“The parents did make that request in advance, and yet they still were not privy to a lot of the information that was being shared,” Norouzi said.

“In the same meeting, there was American Sign Language being provided to deaf parents and it was being provided throughout the whole School Board meeting, not just when the parents were communicating to the School Board,” Norouzi said. “We need to replicate those things.”

When Garcia spoke to the Federal Way School Board recently, she started with a few sentences in Spanish before switching to English so that board members could experience what it’s like to be addressed in a language they don’t speak.

“If you don’t know that feeling, you will never understand how immigrant parents feel when we do not understand anything,” Garcia said.