Translator position aims to bridge racial achievement gap

The Berkeley Unified School District Board of Education approved a new translation and interpretation specialist position at its meeting Wednesday, in the hope of bridging the district’s racial achievement gap.

The school board approved this staff position to improve bilingual communications — specifically with Spanish — at the district level and at its schools as a part of a community-wide plan called 2020 Vision.

As required by state law, the district must provide translation and interpretation services if 15 percent of English learners enrolled in the district or at specific schools speak a primary language other than English.

District Superintendent Bill Huyett said parent engagement plays a big part in closing the achievement gap, as parents will be more engaged in their children’s education if the district is able to communicate with them in languages they can understand.

“As a district, we’re committed, whether we’re required to or not, in communicating with families,” said Nancy Hoeffer, manager of the Berkeley Schools Excellence Program.

The latest statistics show that eight individual schools — along with the district as a whole — have over 15 percent of English learners who speak Spanish as their primary language. These eight schools include Berkeley Technology Academy, two middle schools and five elementary schools, she said.

According to 2009 data from the California Department of Education, 24.2 percent of all California students enrolled in public schools are English learners, and out of these,  84.8 percent are Spanish speaking.

Delia Ruiz, assistant superintendent of Human Resources for the district, said because translating in the district is currently done by several individuals and varies from school to school, there was a need to set up a more systemic way of coordinating language needs efficiently.

“We believed there is a difference between providing information to the family and truly communicating,” Ruiz said.

Mary Hurlbert, administrative coordinator for the Berkeley Schools Excellence Program, said this new district position will make translation processes more organized because the appointed personnel will not only interpret and translate but also coordinate services amongst the various community components.

This specialist position was one out of many proposed recommendations after a communication study was conducted last year by the Berkeley Unified Communications Working Group in partnership with Madera Group, an outside consulting firm.

The hiring and interviewing process will begin once the district’s Personnel Commission of the Merit System approves the drafted minimum qualifications for the job.

“We want to make sure all students and all families can benefit fully, and if language is something that is interfering (with this), we want to address that in a systemic way,” Ruiz said.

Weiru Fang covers local schools.

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  • Guest

    BSEP already funds a Latino parent advocate in the Family Community Partnership office.