We shouldn’t be surprised by the power of parents

Just as women led the suffrage movement, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta led the farm workers and Dr. King and African Americans led the fight for civil rights, low income families and families of color are leading a revolution to eradicate educational inequity in Aurora.

Less than a year ago they initiated the battle for language equity—and this year, they’re winning.

Just a month into the school year, hundreds of non-English speaking families in Aurora Public Schools (APS) can visit their child’s school and actually have a conversation about their child’s education in their native language. They can drop their child off at school without worrying that he or she will later be pulled from class to provide language interpretation for school employees. And they know that when the school calls or sends them important documents, they’ll finally get the message.

They can take pride in all of this and celebrate because this victory is theirs.

By calling for the changes they wanted to see, families convinced the district to increase its 2018-19 budget by $200,000 and form a Centralized Language Services Office to support the diverse language needs of its families.

If you’re surprised that families, not legislators or school board members, had the power to create such district-wide change, you’re probably not alone. But you shouldn’t be so surprised.

“Every successful social justice movement in our country’s history has been led by those who are most impacted,” said Veronica Crespin-Palmer, co-founder and CEO of RISE Colorado. “Families are brilliant, she added. “They know the challenges they’re facing and they know the solutions as well.”

The Barricades Were Everywhere

As the most ethnically diverse school district in the state, APS serves students from more than 130 countries, with families who speak more than 160 languages. But up until now, the district had no centralized office to adequately support families’ language interpretation and translation needs. With three separate departments trying to manage requests across the entire district, many families received phone calls and communications from their school and the district in languages they could not understand.

For many families, just getting to school added another level of frustration. If the weather was bad, families didn’t know if school was open or closed. If a child had a doctor’s appointment, families had trouble picking them up early from school. When parent-teacher conferences arrived, families showed up eager to learn how their child was doing, only to be met with teachers who could not communicate with them.

Every day families were being denied the opportunity to play the most basic role in their child’s education.

But for parents like Husanara Makbul Hussin, the language barrier between her and the school took a toll on her daughter’s physical and emotional well-being. As a refugee from Myanmar, Husanara speaks Burmese and spent four months without an interpreter who could help her explain to her child’s teacher why she was struggling in school.

At a recent event celebrating the changes brought about by her and other families, Husanara’s eyes welled up with tears as she said, “My daughter told me that she was being bullied because she couldn’t speak English and that she didn’t want to go to school anymore.”

It wasn’t until parent-teacher conferences that Husanara finally received a Burmese interpreter to help her speak with her child’s teacher. But while she was able to address one challenge, several others remained.

“When I attended parent coffees and parent workshops, I wasn’t able to understand what they were talking about because they didn’t provide interpretation,” she continued. “I didn’t know what to do because this happened several times. Also, I only received letters and phone calls in English. Sometimes the school tried to help me with interpretation but sometimes the interpreter didn’t show up, and when we called the interpretation line we waited and waited and no one answered.”

Eventually Husanara met a Lah Gay Moo, a community organizer at RISE Colorado, who shared her frustration and introduced her to other families experiencing the same challenges.

And these would be the families — the allies — joining Husanara in the fight for language equity.  

Ironically, Fighting Wasn’t Really the Answer

As it turns out, families didn’t need to put up much of a fight. They needed to organize. And they needed to collaborate. So with support from RISE Colorado’s community organizers, families got the time and space to think collectively about the challenges they were facing and the solutions that would dramatically improve their experience with schools.

Together, families outlined eleven requests for the district to better support their needs. They met with district leaders, who had already been looking to make improvements. They spoke at board meetings and refused to let their language barriers hold them back for one more day.

And before the first day of school this year, the district had fulfilled nine of their eleven requests, which included creation of the Centralized Language Services Office and a policy adopted by the board of education that prohibits students from missing class to provide interpretation for school employees.

The district also committed to providing translation and interpretation for all documents, phone calls and events that pertained to academic, health and safety issues. All of these will be accessible to families who speak the 10 most common languages districtwide. Individual schools will honor the same commitment for the five most common languages spoken by their families.

To improve their experience with front office staff at schools, families created language ID cards and a language protocol that APS adopted and translated into the district’s 10 most commonly spoken languages. The ID cards tell front office staff who the family member is, who their child is and what language families speak. All schools also have a list of common phrases in multiple languages to help families sign their child in and out of school, request a meeting with a principal or teacher, or to request additional language services. School employees can even call a district wide interpretation hotline that connects them with someone who can help them communicate with the families directly in front of them.

This is what’s possible when families step into their own power and demand an education system that works for them. And no one should be surprised by their ability to transform.

But if you want to know what’s next for families in Aurora, you might have to be patient. They’ll   continue to collaborate with the district and organizers from RISE Colorado to ensure they have consistent access to the language services they need. But they’re not stopping there.

Chances are, they’re taking up a new position with an even bigger army of families willing to break through the barricades of injustice for their children and yours.

The reality is, “Families move and shake when they’re ready,” according to Crespin-Palmer.  And there’s no doubt that she and her team will be right there alongside them when they make their next move.

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