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Accessibility Spotlight: Boston Public Schools

In 2016, Mayor Martin J. Walsh signed the city ordinance, “Establishing Language and Communications Access for City Services.” This series highlights our progress to make Boston a more accessible place to live, work, and play.

Last September, Minh, a Vietnamese-speaking parent, arrived at Samuel Adams Elementary School. Worried but determined, Minh was looking to find a solution for her family. Her son was in programs that supported his disability, but her daughter was not. Her son was able to get picked up and dropped off at their home using the Boston Public Schools (BPS) door-to-door program. But Minh’s daughter did not qualify for this program and would need to use a different bus stop. This posed a serious problem for Minh, who could not be in both places at the same time.

When Minh arrived at the school, it was difficult to communicate her problem. Minh is comfortable using basic phrases in English, but primarily speaks Vietnamese. When she tried to express her situation in English it became difficult. School Principal Joanna McKeigue Cruz wanted to help, and this required an interpreter.

In East Boston, Spanish is the top spoken language after English. The Samuel Adams School had other resources ready and staff who speak Spanish. But, options were very limited for other languages. BPS schools were dependent on in-person interpretation for each language service request. This was the case regardless of the amount of interpretation needed. And, it could take up to two weeks to get in-person support. This was discouraging for families who would otherwise receive immediate help.

Fortunately, a telephonic interpretation service became available earlier that day. This on-demand service makes timely interpretation possible in 350 languages. It is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Interpreters are also available who are familiar with special education laws and policies. Currently, 93% of BPS’s translation and interpretation requests involve special education. The BPS Office of English Learners (OEL) made this service possible.

Principal McKeigue Cruz hoped this could help her understand Minh’s situation. She dialed the service for the first time in real-time. She was able to connect with a Vietnamese interpreter, on the special education line. The matched interpreter was already familiar with Minh’s son’s needs and options. Within minutes, Minh and McKeigue Cruz were able to understand each other and find a solution. Minh also took the opportunity to ask about at-home ABA services. She felt that these were essential to her son’s growth. Her son received more ABA services as a result. Both were thrilled to be able to work together without language or time obstacles.

In-person interpreting is often still the most valuable type of interpretation. It is the best for long, complex or technical conversations and planned events. But, the amount of time and human resources needed for it are big barriers. The telephonic service is more efficent for information sharing between families and staff. This supports families who often need more support. It also helps parents rely less on their children to interpret. Reflecting on that day a year ago, Principal McKeigue Cruz says that, “all families feel they are able to communicate with us and are included."

The Samuel Adams School is not the only one to use the service. It is not the only school in Boston that needs to. 31% of BPS District students identify as English Learners (EL). 21% of total students enrolled in BPS have a disability. There are at least 72 different languages spoken at home by EL students. During the 2018-2019 school year, 21,592 minutes (360 hours) were logged on the service. That’s one and a half hours every business day over the past 12 months.

U.S. public schools are legally mandated to communicate information to parents in a language that they understand. This includes any program, service, or activity available to parents who speak English. The OEL’s Translation and Interpretation Unit (T&I Unit) is key in meeting this mandate. They work to find new ways that BPS can increase language and communications access. The T&I Unit oversees translation and interpretation services for the District. They also translate information into the nine major languages of the District. Translation of other languages is available upon request.

Priya Tahiliani, Assistant Superintendent for the Office of English Learners, thanks the Mayor’s Office for their support. Funding has increased and together they have created shared expectations for this work. This collaboration prioritizes services that did not always get the attention they needed. This is important for a city where 1 in 4 residents is an immigrant. City services like BOS 311, the Mayor’s hotline, have been using a similar telephonic interpretation service since 2017. Together, they are improving language and communications access for city residents.

One of the most ways to be successful, according to Allen Dowling, T&I Unit Director, is parent awareness. OEL has made a large effort to keep parents informed. Every school main office has a kit of translated brochures and posters about parent rights and available resources. They are also available on the BPS website.

The T&I Unit handles interpreter training, as well as takes in constant feedback from parents. This year, they hope to launch an official survey for parents about their services. T&I trains interpreters for special education meetings, legal and ethical factors, modes of interpreting, and the role. They also go over the Individualized Education Program (IEP) and student support services. This ensures that families receive high quality and consistent services.

So what is coming next? Parents can lookout for American Sign Language (ASL) Video Remote Interpretation (VRI). The Deaf or those hard of hearing who use ASL will be able to use VRI. T&I also plans to improve its system of record (Aspen SIS) to send report cards, progress reports and conduct letters in the nine primary languages.

*Minh’s name was changed.

The City of Boston Office of Language and Communication Access works to strengthen city services, programs and activities to be meaningfully accessible to all residents. To learn more, visit the Language and Communications Access website.


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