By Natalia Abarca
This is the story of how a multilingual consortium fostered professional virtual relationships and transformed a challenge into an opportunity by creating an international forum of interpreters from an array of backgrounds all with the same goal: to provide equal access to services to our respective students, families, teachers, and communities.
No one could have predicted that March 2020 would have such a profound impact on the lives of people across the world. Had a tarot reader advised me to prepare for such an event, I would have scoffed at the very idea. The pandemic has definitely made us rethink how we see the world.
In 2014, the Orange County Department of Education (OCDE) in Southern California created the OCDE Multilingual Consortium, a professional network that supports high-quality translation and interpreting services for school districts and charter schools across Orange County. The network serves as a repository distribution point for language resources that draws from the collective knowledge and expertise from the field.
When the Consortium was first created, there was an apparent need for such support. As an organization, we were responsive to the needs of our stakeholders and consequently forged a meaningful partnership with paraprofessionals, community liaisons, and other bilingual support staff who were asked to translate, interpret, and provide language access to students and families. Collectively, as a group, we engaged in relevant discussions, shared effective practices, and created a strategic and accountable system where ideas were turned into projects. Overall, there was buy-in from district and school leaders who were heartened by our shared efforts.
When COVID-19 hit, our schools were faced with managing a learning environment filled with much uncertainty. The teachers, staff, and parents who supported remote learning environments had little understanding of how to integrate digital technology into the classroom. There were no systems in place and opportunities to train staff and parents were few and far between. In the midst of increasing COVID-19 cases and with public health guidelines in flux, the OCDE Multilingual Consortium became a virtual haven, where bilingual staff shared their failures and successes, vented, learned to cope, and, most importantly, came together online to support each other.
Serving some of the largest school districts in California, it was a natural transition for the Consortium to become a clearinghouse for bilingual staff challenged by the uncertainty of the pandemic. The virtual platforms at our disposal allowed us to invite colleagues nationwide as we synchronously addressed the educational challenges and opportunities of this new reality. Nationally and internationally recognized colleagues in the field shared their knowledge, and our partnerships with members of the interpreting community became stronger since we were all in this together, and all equally vulnerable.
Biggest Challenges Faced in Schools during the Pandemic
After stay-at-home orders were put in place, school employees started to set up home offices, with multiple electronic devices, office supplies, and high-speed internet. Nevertheless, this was not enough, as school staff began to identify some unanticipated challenges, including:
- How do we provide remote simultaneous interpreting?
- What virtual platforms are we allowed to use in schools?
- Do we have the proper equipment? What about headsets, laptops, hot spots, microphones, and iPads or tablets?
- Do we have adequate space to provide and receive services?
- Are our parents trained on the use of these virtual platforms/technology?
- What steps are in place to provide the support needed?
- Is the school providing Chrome books, laptops, and hot spots to students in need?
- What types of meetings are we covering? Board meetings, expulsion hearings, inter-district transfer appeals, special education meetings?
- How can we manage body language and emotions?
- Are we going to be able to receive documents ahead of time?
- Are administrators going to share their screen so we can see the documents?
- Do we need to do translations? If so, what type of software is available?
- Are there specific glossaries for terminology related to COVID-19?
- Does the school have a scheduling system in place to assign interpreters?
- Does the school have a language access plan implemented?
There were still so many questions to be answered and so little time to assess our collective needs and determine the best actions to take. Simply put, it was a daunting endeavor!
The OCDE Multilingual Consortium regularly and consistently addressed the aforementioned challenges by meeting virtually with staff interpreters from school districts across California. These interpreters were given the opportunity to share their challenges and successes providing language services for board meetings, individualized education program meetings, parent teacher conferences, and community forums. Together, we learned about the use of the Zoom interpreting feature. In time, we became experts, training meeting hosts and preparing scripts to be shared in chats, waiting rooms, and email communications. In addition, we learned how to provide remote simultaneous interpreting while using other virtual platforms such as Google Meets, Webex, and Microsoft Teams. Freelance interpreters also provided tips and shared experiences based on their prior practices, and language services providers offered assistance at no cost, especially to cover assignments involving the least spoken languages.
We requested equipment and tools to perform successfully. We improvised mobile offices in our homes, backyards, garages, and even our cars, many times using our own personal devices. We reached out to all our respective networks. Our social media contacts became our first source of information. We fostered professional virtual relationships and transformed a challenge into an opportunity by creating an international forum of interpreters from an array of backgrounds all with the same goal: to provide equal access to services to our respective students, families, teachers, and communities.
Before the pandemic, the OCDE Multilingual Consortium met regularly with Orange County School District’s bilingual staff. During the pandemic, the virtual environment allowed us to open our doors to bilingual staff from across the state and the U.S. We engaged with thousands of colleagues from all fields of interpreting, creating a unique forum for interpreters serving students in the K-12 system.
What’s It Like to Work as Bilingual Staff, as an Interpreter, or as a Translator in Schools?
According to a new report from the U.S. Department of Education, English-language-learner enrollment in K-12 schools has increased by more than one million students since 2000.1 Thus, language access has earned a front-row seat in our educational system.
Bilingual personnel who work in U.S. schools wear multiple hats with varying job titles and scopes of work. Regardless of whether they refer to themselves as bilingual secretaries, parent advocates, community liaisons, family engagement coordinators, or program coordinators, they all have one common denominator: interpreting and translating are part of the job responsibilities.
It’s important to understand each role to work collaboratively with school staff to ensure accurate language access to our respective students, families, and communities. Staff members also need to understand how the educational system works, how student academic progress is measured, what academic assessments are implemented, and what federal, state, and local educational frameworks are being utilized.
To engage families and parents in their student’s education in meaningful ways, schools need to provide language access in the classrooms and in different educational settings. Schools are not required to have certified interpreters or translators, but having trained multilingual staff is imperative.
The lack of a national certification, standards of practices, and guidelines to work as an interpreter in schools is a big challenge for educational leaders. The need to provide language access is vital, but we need to create white papers and develop policies to protect our work and ensure accuracy and transparency as dictated by ethical principles.
The OCDE Multilingual Consortium surveyed those who attended its meetings from April 2020-December 2021 and received the following feedback:
- 92 % were satisfied with the topics presented.
- 97.5 % were extremely satisfied with the meetings and will continue to attend.
- 97.5 % responded that they would recommend our meetings to their peers.
There’s still work to do, staff to train, topics to explore, and relevant frameworks to create. Based on our data collection, bilingual staff working in K-12 settings are eager to learn more about:
- Computer-assisted translation tools to streamline translation projects
- Note-taking systems to support consecutive interpreting
- Team interpreting in school settings
- Translating multilingual documents
- Honing skills on the use of technology for virtual meetings
- Advancing technical vocabulary in different areas, such as mental health topics
- Trainings for teachers and administrators on how to work with interpreters and the importance of working with trained bilingual staff
- Self-care for interpreters
- Supporting parent involvement in their student educational journey
Reflecting on the past two years, I feel humbled. We’ve grown so much as a community as we keep moving forward toward the professionalization of interpreters working in K-12 settings. My big dilemma: Should we continue providing equal opportunities for learning to all bilingual staff working in the educational system in person? Or should we continue with virtual offerings? Or should we create a hybrid model to provide access to all?
With no right or wrong answer, and even with the uncertainty still looming, we’re starting to feel a sense of normalcy. Some of us are back in our office environments, but others are still working remotely. With this in mind, things will never be the same. We learned to be flexible and adaptable. We learned to be empathetic with others. We learned to be mindful of our daily practices, but overall, we learned how to be grateful. Interpreters are more visible than ever, and we’re so extremely proud of your incredible job during this unprecedented time in history.
California Department of Education Information on Public School Districts
U.S. Department of Education, Office of English Language Acquisition: English Learners Demographic Trends
Orange County Department of Education
World Atlas Largest School Districts in the U.S.
- U.S. Department of Education, Office of English Language Acquisition: English Learners Demographic Trends, https://bit.ly/English-learners.
Natalia Abarca manages the Orange County Department of Education Multilingual Consortium, a professional network established to support high-quality translation and interpreting services in schools. A medical interpreter, she is a licensed trainer for The Community Interpreter International training program. She facilitates the implementation of networks and leadership development. She hosts the annual OCDE Interpreters and Translators Conference in Education. A founding member of the American Association for Interpreters and Translators in Education, she serves on the board as committee coordinator. She is also a member of ATA’s Interpreters Division blog team and a past member of the division’s leadership council. NAbarca@ocde.us