Fayette Co. spending $161,000 on "Language Line" phone service providing interpretation for parents who don't speak English; part of superintendent's equity plan

Herald-Leader, Lexington, Oct. 29, 2016

Once turned away, parents who don’t speak English now use ‘Language Line’

Last school year, when a parent who couldn’t speak English came to a Fayette County school to talk to staff, they were sometimes initially sent away until an interpreter could be found.

“We were sending parents away who wanted to enroll their children,” said Michael Dailey, the district’s associate director of federal, state and magnet programs. School staff were sending parents away who wanted to meet with a teacher or fill out a form, all because “we had no way of communicating.”

But this year, the school district has Language Line, a telephone service offered to district schools and offices to support interpreting 200 languages. Under federal law, district officials have to make school information available to families who don’t speak English, Dailey said.

At district schools, instead of having to wait for an interpreter to arrive, staff call the service for parents and are connected to an interpreter who helps answer the parent’s questions or give them information. The service’s intent is to reduce barriers non-English-speaking families often face when requesting information or attempting basic communication. The schools and offices are responsible for providing the service, Dailey said.

In just the first two months of this school year, the school district had 113 calls on the interpreting line, most in Spanish, but seven each in Swahili and Arabic, two in French and one each in Russian, Kinyarwanda, Bulgarian, Japanese, and Pashto, an Iranian language.

The language line “has put the power back with the families,” Lucy Vose, youth and family services coordinator for the Lexington office of Kentucky Refugee Ministries said “They are less reliant on us for language support. Schools can go directly to the families for things like permission slips for field trips or setting up parent-teacher conferences.”

For example, when on the first day of school this year, Vose could not contact an interpreter she was familiar with to help a family, a Fayette school staffer called the service and through an interpreter was able to resolve the family’s problem.

Approximately $161,000 has been earmarked in the district’s 2016-17 budget for the Language Line. The initiative is part of Fayette Superintendent Manny Caulk’s improvement plan for the district called Blueprint for Success.

“This is about equity and making sure families are our partners,” said Caulk.

When a family arrives at a school office, the family member requests an interpreter by reviewing a Language Line poster and pointing to the needed language.

The school or district office staff calls the Language Line service, enters an access code and requests the language needed. The school and office staff connects the family with the interpreter.

Vose said hundreds of refugee children are enrolled in Fayette County Public Schools. She said she helped enrolled 100 alone in the 2015-16 school year, 85 percent of them from the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Swahili, Kinyarwanda, and French. languages that led to the requests for interpreters at schools are all spoken in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The largest number of refugees settling in Lexington come from there, with 215 Congolese refugees arriving from Oct. 1, 2015, through September 30, 2016, said Mary Cobb, the director of the Lexington office of Kentucky Refugee Ministries office.

Federal agencies decide where refugees are resettled. Vose and Cobb said the numbers of Congolese in Lexington might have something to do with the success of the first few families who settled here. Some of the refugees followed their relatives, Cobb said.

Caulk, meanwhile, wants to open a Newcomers Center that would help immigrant and refugee students as they first come to the United States.

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