© 2024 New England Public Media

FCC public inspection files:

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact hello@nepm.org or call 413-781-2801.
PBS, NPR and local perspective for western Mass.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How Massachusetts school interpreters are building connections with parents

ELL Family Advocate Jean Cherry assists Silrose Cherismat, a parent of a child attending Brockton Public Schools, fill out an online job application at the Brockton Public Schools Multilingual Parent Communication Center.
Jesse Costa
ELL Family Advocate Jean Cherry assists Silrose Cherismat, a parent of a child attending Brockton Public Schools, fill out an online job application at the Brockton Public Schools Multilingual Parent Communication Center.

From the parking lot, the Multilingual Parent Communication Center in midtown Brockton, Massachusetts, is easy to miss. Located in a nondescript office park next to Westgate Mall, the only thing that stands out is a black and white sign that says the office’s name.

But inside the building, a distinct scene unfolds: a hum of ringing phones, and multiple conversations in several languages.

In one corner, Adele Gomes asked a parent for her name and email address in Cape Verdean Creole. On the opposite side of the room, Yavier Castro Soto spoke in Spanish to a parent who will be moving soon and is asking where to find financial assistance. And on the far side, Jean Cherry spoke in Haitian Creole to a parent filling out a job form.

The interpretation and translation staff here, most of whom are known as bilingual community relations facilitators, are employees of Brockton Public Schools. Employed by the district, they fill a major need as the population of the city — and school system — rapidly changes.

Nearly half of all students in Brockton schools speak a language other than English with their parents and family at home. It’s a percentage that’s nearly doubled in the last 20 years, and far outpaced the statewide growth rate. Since 2002, students across Massachusetts who speak a language other than English at home grew from 14% to 25%, according to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Language translation for non-English speaking parents has been a high priority at Brockton Public Schools for decades now.

Since the mid-1980s, the district’s full-time interpretation staff has grown from just a handful of people to more than a dozen individuals. In recent years, these employees were constantly on the move, hosting office hours in different schools each day to tend to interpretation needs. This year, the district is trying something new: bringing most of the interpreters together in one building located close to a major bus line as a central one-stop shop for parents.

Connie Jonet-Branco, a longtime facilitator, said the central new office has made her day more efficient and helps her better manage her demanding schedule serving eight schools.

“Every school uses me, from the nurse to [teachers during] parent conferences, to make sure our bilingual parents are included,” she said.

Jonet-Branco, who speaks Portuguese and Cape Verdean Creole, has worked for Brockton Public Schools for almost 30 years. She said when she first started, there were three full-time interpreters for the entire district: herself, a Vietnamese speaker and a Spanish speaker.

The specific languages in demand have changed. Jonet-Branco served a mainly Cape Verdean community when she started her career in Brockton. Today, a growing number of families are moving here from Brazil, which is driving up the need for Portuguese translation, she said.

Jonet-Branco is part of a group of 17 people in Brockton Public Schools’ Bilingual Department. Among them, the staff speak Spanish, Portuguese, French, Haitian Creole, Cape Verdean Creole, Thai, Hmong, Mandarin and Laotian. To ensure accuracy, they’re all certified in school interpretation and translation, as required by the district.

While this interpretation staff’s main job is to help parents comprehend the school system and understand school communications, staff often assist families with qualifying for housing assistance or locating food banks, said Jonet-Branco.

“When newcomers arrive, community members will tell each other, ‘Oh, call Connie. Connie helped me a lot.’ It doesn’t matter what school or what (the issue) is,” Jonet-Branco said.

Gilda Andrade, whose native language is Cape Verdean Creole, said she felt comfortable leaning on the staff here when her son was struggling in school. Her facilitator, Lucia Alvarado, coordinated meetings with teachers and answered questions about school policy.

“She helped me a great deal because she knew I didn’t understand English,” said Andrade in Cape Verdean Creole through an interpreter. “She helped me get him into the school he’s in now because of that.”

Artemiza DaSilva, another parent in the district, said the multilingual support center is a big reason why she’s remained a resident of the district rather than moving to nearby Rockland, where housing is less expensive.

“The school staff helped a lot with my oldest daughter,” she said in Portuguese, through an interpreter. “So, later, when I had twin boys, I decided to stay because there was so much more support for me here.”

Brockton school administrators said they’re committed to investing in translation staff since it helps build bridges with various communities in the city — and leads to more positive outcomes for students.

“The better we can help support parents and the better they are doing, the more equipped they are to help their child,” said Brockton Superintendent Michael Thomas, noting the support helps kids get better grades, enroll in higher level classes, and pursue college or a career.

Thomas added that school leaders in other communities, even as far away as Denver, have reached out to learn more about how the district’s multilingual center works.

Brockton’s model stands apart from what’s being done in many Massachusetts districts in that it has a dedicated support staff to assist parents with language translation and interpretation, said Diana Santiago with Massachusetts Advocates for Children. In a lot of other school systems, she said, educators who happen to speak another language are often pulled out of their classroom duties to help facilitate parent communication. Not only is this disruptive to school staff, it wades into tricky terrain, she said.

“They are very frequently not trained in even basic ideas that are encapsulated in that [interpreter] code of ethics like confidentiality, the specific terminology in special education team meetings or meetings related to student discipline,” Santiago said.

In the last few years, Massachusetts Advocates for Children has pushed for more translation and interpretation standards for school settings. They recently worked with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to develop a standard curriculum for training school interpreters that’s now available to schools. They’re also pushing for a bill that would require anyone that provides translation services in state public schools to be certified in school interpretation and translation.

“The need (for language assistance) is only going to increase over time as the immigrant population in Massachusetts continues to grow,” Santiago said.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
Copyright 2023 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.

Related Content