Above: Local parent Carla Gonzalez addressed the Merced City School District board of trustees during the June 13 public hearing on school funding. Language access and translation services were among the most frequent concerns presented to the board, which is scheduled to vote on the district’s 2017-2018 equity-funding plan June 27. (Photo by Alyssa Castro)
By Hannah Esqueda
MERCED, Calif. — Inadequate language access and poor parent engagement practices were front and center during a June 13 public hearing on school funding at Merced City School District (MCSD), during which at least one community member reminded officials of the district’s legal responsibilities to parents.
“I want to share with you an incident that occurred recently that shocked me,” said Candice Medefind, executive director of Healthy House in Merced, a cultural-competency group. She recounted how she had recently contacted by a school within MCSD to schedule translation services for an Afghan refugee family.
“The school had no idea they are obligated to provide language interpretation under the Civil Rights Act,” she said. “They told me that parents usually bring their own translator or the kids interpret for them.”
When Medefind contacted the district about the issue, she said staff there also seemed to be unaware of their obligation for parents and families.
“Frankly, I found this to be disturbing,” she said.
Medefind handed out copies of policies enforced jointly by the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education outlining requirements for school districts to provide interpretation services for parents and guardians.
The policy outlines how schools and school districts are required to “provide translation or interpretation from appropriate and competent individuals and may not rely on or ask students, siblings, friends or untrained school staff.”
“There are some real obligations that need to be met,” Medefind said. “Especially since we are one of the ten most ethnically diverse counties in the country.”
Her comments followed heartfelt testimony from several MCSD parents, who urged the board to address a host of issues like providing more support for foster youth and making public meetings more accessible to parents and community members. In line with Medefind’s commentary, the most speakers zeroed in on language barriers between monolingual staff and non-English speaking families, reminding officials that parents are better equipped to help their children succeed in school when they can communicate with teachers.
Speaking in Spanish, Reyes Elementary School parent Carla Gonzalez said she’d like to see the district invest more in community liaisons who are fluent in Spanish and Hmong.
Investment in full-time, multi-lingual community liaisons is one of the best ways officials can show they are prioritizing funding for ESL students, said Gonzalez, who specified that those positions should be created at schools with the highest need.
Currently several schools are scheduled to hire bilingual liaisons but none of them are slated to work in schools on the city’s south side, which has the highest concentration of English learner students.
“Gracey Elementary doesn’t have a community liaison at the school even though it’s 50 percent [English learners],” Gonzalez said. “As a parent, we just want to see every single dollar spent wisely.”
The public hearing was the first of two opportunities for school board members to hear from parents and community members on MCSD’s proposed Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP). The 100-plus page document details how the district intended to spend nearly $22 million in state funding during the 2017-2018 school year.
The money is provided under the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) and aimed towards boosting education outcomes for high need students like foster youth, low-income children and English-language learners.
MCSD released a final draft of its proposed LCAP earlier this month and is in the midst of several weeks of community feedback before they vote on the plan June 27.
Currently, the LCAP allocates $1,800 for the district to purchase interpretation equipment, which parents and advocates say is a good first step. But those commenting at the June 13 forum said they’d still like to see more investment from the district in bringing the language gap.
“We asked for interpretation equipment and it’s in [the budget] so I thank you for listening to us,” said Claudia Corchado, program manager for Cultiva La Salud in Merced County and aunt of a John Muir Elementary School student.
“But I would like to advocate for the continued hiring of folks who can speak Spanish, who can speak Hmong, and understand what’s truly on the minds of these amazing little people we work with,” she continued.
Gracey Elementary parent Esmeralda Garcia said she’d like to see the district host LCAP planning meetings in Spanish at locations on the southside of town next year.
Hosting meetings in wealthier North Merced and holding them only in English makes it difficult to engage the families of the very students who stand to benefit the most from the LCAP, she said.
It’s the district’s responsibility to ensure that LCFF funding goes to the students and school sites most in need, said Tsia Xiong, director of Faith in Merced and parent of several children in MCSD.
“One of my concerns is that if [LCFF money is] not addressed to those [high need] populations, I think that’s a problem and we need to step back and ask why not,” he said.
The board closed the public hearing on the LCAP without much comment other than board president Adam Cox thanking all residents who spoke for their input. He said the board would also have the chance to hear from parents again at the meeting next Tuesday before the vote that night.
All school districts in California are required to approve an LCAP and submit to the state by June 30 or risk losing access to state funding.