High school student Emily Cuellar has an easy way to sugarcoat things if her grades slip or her teacher sends a note home complaining about her class behavior.
She speaks fluent English. Her parents, born in Colombia and Ecuador, do not and have depended on their daughter, now 16, to translate for them since she was little.
"I totally took advantage of my mom," Cuellar said. If there was anything less than flattering, "I'd just leave it out."
Her experience is a common one in immigrant-rich New York, where about 43 percent of public school students speak a language other than English at home. Parents who are not fluent may feel distanced from the schools by their inability to understand report cards, read permission slips or interact with teachers.
The district is hoping to change that this year with a $7.5 million expansion of its translation and interpretation unit.
For months, the unit's beefed-up staff has been translating school documents into eight languages: Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Bengali, Haitian Creole, Korean, Urdu and Arabic.
This fall it hopes to launch an over-the-phone interpretation service for schools that need to communicate with a parent who does not speak English.
More interpreters will be on hand at public meetings to provide simultaneous interpretations through headsets. A similar system may be used for quarterly parent conferences or disciplinary hearings, said the unit's director, Kleber Palma.
"Ultimately, the goal is to increase student performance in the schools, and one of the key ways of doing that is to increase parent involvement," Palma said.
School districts around the country have been exploring similar programs as the number of non-English-speaking parents has soared, said Lillian Clementi, a spokeswoman for the American Translators Association.
"Over the past 10 or 15 years, this has really become a phenomenon. I think everybody is really scrambling," Clementi said. "We are not talking about just New York and California and Texas and Florida anymore. We are talking about the heartland."
Nearly 23 percent of all people born in the United States in 2002 had at least one foreign-born parent -- a high since the end of World War I -- according to a recent birth records analysis by the Center for Immigration Studies.
Palma cautioned that trying to accommodate every request may be difficult. City parents speak more than 170 languages, and the district is not prepared to translate things such as the handwritten notes teachers occasionally send to parents.
"It would open a flood of work that, at this time, we're not capable of taking on," he said.
That will likely mean some continuing hurdles for parents such as Catalina Martinez, the mother of a 12-year-old middle schooler.
Born in Mexico, Martinez said through an interpreter that she has had to rely on bilingual friends and strangers for help with teachers.
More often than not, she said, these amateur interpreters have a limited grasp of one of the languages they are being asked to translate -- meaning that delicate conversations about a child's academic performance, or behavior, can get mangled easily.
"She feels she's never had direct contact with the teachers of her children, which is pretty frustrating," said Irene Tung, a community activist.
Cuellar said it was not unusual for administrators to grab a bilingual student out of the hall and have them interpret for a parent who arrived at a school unannounced to take home a sick child or speak to a teacher.
"That's not right," she said. "Kids shouldn't be doing that."