North Carolina is full of diversity, with each community contributing invaluable resources and vitality to the state. The Latinx community is no exception. (Latinx is a gender-neutral term used instead of Latino or Latina.) According to census data, the Latinx population in NC has grown faster since 2010 than both white and black populations, making North Carolina a hub for Latinx migration — and is it any wonder? North Carolina is an attractive to place to settle with strong job opportunities, well-ranked higher education, and a relatively low cost of living. Latinx families, like many others, are turning an eye toward the Tar Heel state.
But all is not well for Latinx children in our schools. In 2012-13, over 85,000 students in NC schools were English Language Learners whose primary language is Spanish. According to North Carolina School Report Card data, only 48 percent of children identified as Hispanic were proficient in end-of-grade testing in 2017, compared to 70 percent of white students and 80 percent of Asian students. These results are troubling.
North Carolina must ensure that Latinx students can be successful in our state’s public schools. Resolving the language barriers between schools and families is a fundamental part of the solution.
The language barrier creates challenges for the student and family in understanding school procedures and expectations. For students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), the challenge is even greater. While many of the usual school forms are translated into Spanish, this is not true for many special education forms, in part because those forms and plans are unique and must be updated regularly.
Further, procedures at IEP meetings can vary for Spanish-speaking families. Some families get to see their child’s IEP in their native language as it is being drafted during the IEP meeting. Other families must rely on an interpreter to read the IEP aloud after significant parts have been written, without the family seeing any of the IEP written in their native language. This is problematic because the IEP drafting process is intended to be a time for clarification and negotiation, with the parent as a fully participating team member.
Copies of IEPs are distributed to families in different ways across school districts. Some school districts provide a translated copy for families to take home and review, as would be standard for English speaking families. Other school districts do not provide a translated hard copy to families; instead, families are given a phone number for a language translation service. They must call the number and ask the staff, who are not educators, to read and interpret the IEP aloud over the phone. This practice leaves parents less able to fully engage their students’ schools around IEP implementation.
Outside of IEP planning and implementation, when a parent needs to communicate with staff, or vice versa, the language gap often creates additional problems. Many North Carolina schools do not have Spanish speaking staff or access to a language interpretation service, thus parents frequently have to make use of their children as interpreters. If a parent has a child who is nonverbal or otherwise cannot communicate because of a disability, vital information cannot be easily shared, and the gap between school staff and the family can grow.
Using a child as an interpreter in an education setting also creates ethical issues. Children may be forced to directly communicate sensitive concerns of parents to teachers, an unfair expectation at any age. Conversely, teachers may ask students to relay information involving their own behavior, discipline, and expectations. This stress of “language brokering” has been shown to cause psychological distress for children.
The Latinx community faces many barriers to success, but how can families and children begin the process of removing those barriers without effective communication about their children’s education? North Carolina public schools must improve their language services to effectively support Latinx students with and without disabilities.