Thursday, Jan. 31, 2008

Schools struggle to provide interpreters

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Almost every day, Frederick County Public Schools’ English Language Learning Department fields a request for an interpreter to communicate with a family who doesn’t speak English.

Often, schools need a Spanish speaker to translate transcripts or talk to a family about PTA meetings. But more elaborate scenarios are becoming common, said Larry Steinly, supervisor of the English Language Learning Department.

‘‘Last week we had a call for a language spoken in Nigeria,” he said. ‘‘It worked out eventually because the family spoke a little English.”

With a growing and increasingly diverse population of foreign-born students, Frederick County Public Schools is facing a more pressing need for services to support them.

In the last five years, the school system has noted a growing need for interpreters speaking Mandarin, Korean, Vietnamese, Urdu or Burmese. The number of requests for interpreters has also jumped significantly — from 116 in 2002-03 to 788 in 2006-07.

The number is expected to go up again next year, when the Frederick County English Language Learner population is estimated to exceed 1,300.

‘‘Our second language population has grown dramatically,” Steinly said. ‘‘Right now we are able to cover the needs of our Spanish-speaking population, but there are [44] other languages spoken in our schools.”

As one of its many functions, the English Language Learning Department connects schools and families with bilingual consultants and interpreters in the area. The department’s four staff members also assist foreign-born students and families with anything from enrollment and transportation to attendance and instruction.

The school system has endorsed a grant written by a community agency to provide Asian interpreters and promote cultural awareness and language training for Frederick County teachers, according to Ann Bonitatibus, associate superintendent for secondary schools.

Another solution could be hiring a full-time Spanish interpreter who would serve as a community liaison to handle translation requests, communicate with families and connect schools with other interpreters. This solution has been delayed because of other priorities within the system. ‘‘We wanted to hire ELL teachers first,” Bonitatibus said.

This year, the system has placed the position in its draft budget for fiscal 2009 (which starts on July 1) as one of 21 requests for high-priority ‘‘strategic improvements” — additional budget items allowing the system to go beyond its basic needs. According to Hall Keller, the system’s director of fiscal services, the school system is already $1.5 million short of being able to cover its base budget. That means the $43,500 interpreter’s position, as well as all other strategic improvements, likely will not get funded, Keller said.

Steinly said the position would be most helpful to fill by October, when his office has to find hundreds of interpreters to translate for parents during the three-day PTA conferences.

Need grows

Growth in the number of English Language Learners in Frederick County public schools

2002-03: 447 students

2003-05: 899 students

2006-07: 1,152 students