A Nov. 18 article incorrectly reported that Senegalese is one of the languages that will be translated by a new service contracted for by Montgomery County public schools. Senegalese is not a language. The official language of Senegal is French. (Published 11/30/1999)
In Montgomery County public schools, where students from 145 different countries speak some 120 different languages, finding a teacher or administrator who can communicate with a parent who speaks Kurdish or Senegalese can be difficult.
Sometimes it's not even easy to find someone fluent in more common languages such as Korean or Spanish.
So yesterday, school officials announced that the 131,000-student system will contract with a service to provide translations in 140 languages for parents who do not speak English.
The new service is part of School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast's push to get more parents involved in their children's schooling and to boost academic performance across racial and ethnic groups.
"We're going to have to broaden our scope of what involvement means. And we're going to have to start with the first big hurdle--language--because that's a real barrier," Weast said at a news conference. "If you don't understand each other, it's hard to communicate. Then frustration builds up and that carries over into the homes and that carries over into student performance."
Under its contract with California-based Language Line Services, the school system will be charged on a per-call basis--with fees between $2.25 and $4.50 a minute. School officials said they had no estimates for what the service will cost the school system on an annual basis because that will depend on demand. "But there's an estimate of the cost of failure, and it's huge," Weast said.
Currently, staff members at more than 30 administrative offices that deal with the public have access to the system, and individual schools may obtain an interpreter by going through them. The contract also will allow each of the system's 189 schools to use the translation service directly.
When someone who does not speak English calls or walks into a school system office, staff members can call the Language Line, provide a code and have an interpreter available within minutes, officials said.
In addition, the round-the-clock service will be available to provide written translations and for teachers who need to initiate contact with parents who don't speak English.
Like other Washington area school systems, Montgomery County has traditionally relied on a pool of interpreters to provide services to non-English-speaking parents.
Yet often, the request for an interpreter has to be made days in advance, and may be difficult to fill at all in the case of languages that are less common in the region.
In other cases, school officials must pull bilingual staff members away from other duties to provide translations. And, routinely, it is the children themselves who fulfill the role.
"Very often, students themselves become the translator in the situation," said Raymond Bryant, Montgomery's director of special education. "The student is the person who speaks English and speaks the other language and acts on behalf of their family to come in and translate," he said, "very often putting the student in an awkward situation, putting the parent in an embarrassing situation by having their child, if you will, as the adult in that moment, speaking for the parent."
Weast said the use of the service will not mean that the system will reduce efforts to recruit multilingual staff members, and he said having school system employees--especially teachers--who can speak a foreign language is the ideal.
"I'd like to have more, but we can't wait. With the number of kids and the number of languages, we can't wait," he said. "We can't even begin to get enough people."
Michelle C. Yu, the PTA president at Cold Spring Elementary School who is organizing efforts to involve more Asian American parents in the school system, said yesterday that she believes the new service could be a valuable tool for immigrant parents.
"It's something that can be very helpful to newcomers," she said. But she added that immigrant parents also have to be made aware that the service exists and that they can ask for an interpreter.
At the 600-student Gaithersburg Elementary School, Principal Sharon J. Jones said the service could be particularly helpful when interpreters are in heavy demand.
At her school, where 21 percent of the students are not proficient in English, as many as 60 parents might need a translator on parent conference days.
Just six school employees are bilingual. Jones said she would prefer to have more staff members who can speak another language, but welcomed the new service. "Yes, we could certainly benefit from that," she said.
CAPTION: Montgomery school chief Jerry D. Weast wants more parents involved.