When students walked into the citywide high school fair last month, one of the first things they saw was a pile of colorful, phone-book sized directories listing more than 500 schools they can consider. But those guides were available only in English, as they have been for the last several years.
To some extent, New York City faces an intractable challenge in trying to give families information in their own languages. About 42 percent of city students speak a language other than English at home, and students speak 185 different languages, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office.
The Department of Education posts translated guides to elementary, middle, and high schools online in nine of the most commonly spoken languages. But parents, advocates, and guidance counselors say not having printed versions creates a barrier for parents whose access to information is already limited.
“This sends a message that people who don’t speak English aren’t as important, because the guide isn’t available to them in the same way,” said Elsa Cruz Pearson, a staff attorney at the Immigrant Students’ Rights Project.
The department stopped printing copies of translated directories after the 2007-2008 school year. For a time, it distributed disks with translated guides but now simply makes them available for download online.
That can be a problem for immigrant families, said Pearson, who has gotten calls from families seeking translated directories. “Many immigrant parents are not computer literate,” she said. “They don’t have computer in the home where they can jump on and start downloading guides in their languages.”
And the translated guides are not always completed quickly or easy to find once they are released. As of this week, the high school directory page on the department’s website includes a link to last year’s translations, while this year’s translations can be found on a different page. And 18 out of 63 sections are still missing, including the Manhattan section in Spanish; four parts of the Arabic section, including the introduction; and the entire Urdu version.
A department spokesman said translations were made available earlier this year than in past years, and that the remaining translations would be released soon. He said that the formatting of the directory can be particularly hard to replicate in languages, such as Urdu, whose letters are written right to left.
At last week’s City Council hearing on education, several council members raised the issue of delayed translations of other documents, such as the educational impact statements the department must produce when it proposes school co-locations and closures. Chancellor Dennis Walcott praised the department’s translation unit but said translation takes time, particularly for long documents.
Megan Moskop, a teacher and high school coordinator at a middle school in Washington Heights, said department officials delivered a similar message at a training she attended last week. But, she said, barriers to information about school options undermine the system of choice championed by the Bloomberg administration. “The DOE is all about, this is about choice, it’s about choice,” she said. “But not everyone has the same access to information about their choices.”
Educators, parents, and advocates have come up with various workarounds. Moskop said her school prints a few copies of the translated guides to share with parents who need them. But that can’t happen until they are available, which is after the English guide is released — something Moskop said gives English-speaking families an automatic leg up in the school selection process.
“The advantage is that over the summer you have time to sit down with your kid and look over [the directory],” she said about using the annual high school guide.
At P.S. 253 in the Bronx, PTA President Rosalie Mendez said she plans to ask the principal to request bound copies of the Spanish translation of the district’s middle school directories. Parents at the school have been calling her to ask for translations, she said.
Pearson, the attorney at the Immigrant Students’ Rights Project, said she has seen a few some enrollment offices print out the translations, but that the copies are limited and worn out. She said the department should at least make bound copies available in the borough enrollment offices, schools, and district offices, using data that already exist to identify which languages non-English speaking parents are most likely to speak in each district.
And Josmene Guerrier, a youth organizer at the Flanbwayan Haitian Literacy Project in Brooklyn, accompanies recent immigrants to enrollment centers at the start of the school year. She says she sees then become more assertive about their preferences after reading the directories in Haitian Creole using computers at her office.
Guerrier said she missed out on feeling the same sense of connection when she moved to New York from Haiti 10 years ago, when she was 17, even though the city was still printing translated directories at the time.
“Most of the time the information was in English and you don’t know what’s going on,” Guerrier said. “You do not understand.”