According to the U.S. Census Bureau, at least 350 languages other than English are spoken in homes in the United States. Metropolitan areas have the largest populations of non-English or limited English speakers. For instance, the Bureau reports that in the Seattle Metro area, at least 166 languages are spoken at home, and 22 percent of the metro area population over the age of five speaks a language other than English at home.
U.S. public school systems are increasingly diverse.
Compliance and Language Support in Schools
This is of significant concern for school districts around the country. As the prevalence of non-English speakers or limited English speakers continues to rise, school districts receiving federal funding are required to accommodate the language needs of an increasingly diverse population.
Ensuring that your school district is compliant with federal regulations regarding language support services and that the needs of students and parents are being met requires attention to several matters. School districts must:
• understand the legal definition of "LEP" students and parents
• understand the legal requirements for addressing the needs of LEP parents and students
• identify those students and parents in need of language support within the school district
• assess the level of need and the ability of the school district to handle the need either in-house or through outsourcing
Understanding the Legal Term
At LEP.gov, a federal interagency website designed to provide comprehensive information about LEP issues, limited English proficiency (LEP) individuals are defined in this way: "Individuals who do not speak English as their primary language and who have a limited ability to read, speak, write, or understand English can be limited English proficient, or "LEP." These individuals may be entitled language assistance with respect to a particular type or service, benefit, or encounter."
Understanding the Law
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, English learner (EL) students constitute nine percent of all public school students and are enrolled in nearly three out of four public schools in the United States. Guidance issued jointly from the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education states: "Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI) and the Equal Opportunities Act of 1974 (EEOA), public schools must ensure that EL students can participate meaningfully and equally in educational programs."
However, these regulations encompass more than just the EL student alone. Additional regulation regarding LEP parents is addressed in Executive Order 13166. The Department of Justice further notes: "LEP parents are entitled to meaningful communication in a language they can understand, such as through translated materials or a language interpreter and to adequate notice of information about any program, service, or activity that is called to the attention of non-LEP parents."
There are a number of clarifications and additional regulations that apply to providing language support for EL students and LEP parents. In an effort to clarify the steps school districts must take to ensure compliance with these regulations, the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education issued guidance in 2015 which is a must-read for school administrators looking for additional information. Here are some highlights from that guidance pertaining specifically to providing language support for LEP parents:
1) School districts must provide information to LEP parents in their native language, either through written communication (translation) or through oral communication (interpretation) in areas including but not limited to:
• language assistance programs
• special education and related services
• IEP meetings
• grievance procedures
• notices of nondiscrimination
• student discipline policies and procedures
• registration and enrollment
• report cards
• parent-teacher conferences
• parent handbooks
• parent permission for student participation in district or school events
• gifted and talented programs
• any other school and program choice options
2) School districts must develop and implement a process for determining whether parents are LEP and what their language needs are. This process must be designed to identify all LEP parents, including those with children who are proficient in English and those whose native language is not common in the district.
3) School districts must provide language assistance to identified LEP parents effectively with appropriate, competent staff or appropriate and competent outside resources. School districts must ensure that those who provide language assistance have knowledge in English and the other language in question and fully understand the concepts and any specialized terms that will be used in the communication at issue.
Language support at parent-teacher conferences is needed.
Identifying LEP Parents
In many cases, school districts use a student registration form such as a home language survey to identify LEP parents. The initial school inquiry should be translated into languages common in the district. For those languages less common, it is recommended that the district include at least a cover letter in the less common language which explains how a parent may receive oral interpretation of the form and offer interpreters to ensure that parents accurately report their language needs on the form.
Compliance Issues that Commonly Arise
The Department of Justice identifies some common areas of non-compliance. They include:
1) Failure to properly identify LEP parents within a school district.
It is important to note that school districts must have a fully outlined process for identifying LEP parents. School districts must not rely merely on the word of students enrolled pertaining to their parents' language capabilities, and must make a concerted effort to ensure that LEP parents are adequately identified.
2) Reliance on untrained and unqualified interpreters and translators.
School districts that rely on students, siblings, or untrained school staff to interpret or translate for LEP parents are not in compliance with federal mandates. The obligation of school districts is to provide qualified language interpreters and translators who fully understand the issues involved and are conversant with both the languages spoken and the concepts being conveyed.
3) Failure to provide language support for all communications.
Federal law mandates that LEP parents must receive adequate communication regarding any information that is provided to non-LEP parents. Put simply, LEP parents are to receive all communication from the school district that is provided to English-speaking parents, without exception.
Providing adequate language support in all types of communication, including conferences with school officials, is required.
Using Professional Language Service Providers
Many school districts use professional language service providers to ensure compliance with federal regulations. Some common scenarios in which school districts may benefit from outsourcing their language support are:
• limited staff proficiency in languages spoken by LEP parents in the district
• multiple less common languages spoken, making blanket interpretation or translation difficult
• overflow of language services needed to accommodate large student populations
Advantages of Professional Language Services
Since school districts must be proactive in arranging language support, it is often wise to partner with a professional language service provider to address potential issues with LEP parents. Language service providers can help you:
• design a process for identifying families that need language support
• set accomplishment goals
• understand the needs specific to language support
• formulate a plan of action for addressing language needs within your district
• provide overflow and backup support for high volume language needs
• understand the cultural issues involved in language support services
Jason Selden, director of Client Services at Dynamic Language, notes: "All Dynamic Language interpreters are certified by the state in interpretation services. In addition, the interpreters and translators provide needed cultural support because they are generally from the countries that speak the languages for which they provide support."
He continues: "This is a major differentiator between a professional agency and family or school staff as interpreters and translators. Trained interpreters take cultural factors into account."
Cultural understanding is an essential component for accurate, adequate communication between school personnel and LEP parents. For instance, in some cultures, gender roles may prohibit communication between different genders, meaning that the school district must ensure that it provides interpreters of the correct gender to address the LEP parent involved.
These cultural issues can sometimes complicate the communication process if not handled appropriately. Thus, cultural understanding is a key advantage of using professionally trained interpreters.
Providing language support for LEP parents meets compliance requirements and ensures adequate educational opportunities for students.
The Bottom Line
As the student population of school districts grows more and more linguistically diverse, it falls upon the school districts to design and implement plans to accommodate the language needs of EL students and LEP parents.
Addressing the language needs within a school district serves a two-fold purpose. It ensures compliance with all federal mandates regarding language support, and it gives students and parents within the district the tools they need to adequately benefit from all school programs and activities.
Using a professional language service provider enables many school districts to meet both of these objectives. To partner with a professional agency to support LEP parents in your district, contact us today. We will help you assess your needs and design an action plan to address them in the best way.