Schools rethink translation, interpretation services

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WESTBROOK — After hearing from parents about the need for better translation services, and with the amount budgeted for such services for this school year nearly spent already, the school board’s Finance Committee is looking at ways to better provide interpreter services.

“We are researching all the different avenues,” including cost-sharing with other school districts,  said Veronica Bates, chairwoman of the Finance Committee. “Translation services, the cost is going up exponentially. It is quite expensive to translate paperwork.”

Superintendent Peter Lancia said the school department budgeted approximately$15,000 for translation services and has spent about $14,800 as of mid-February.

“We have just about overspent at this point,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we stop translating or interpreting. That means we have to find funding elsewhere in the budget. My plan is to address (interpreting and translating) more aggressively in the fiscal 2020 budget.”

Westbrook schools have 418 English Language Learners who speak close to 25 languages, which makes keeping up with translation and interpretation services a challenge, according to ELL Coordinator Regina Clement.

November and April tend to be the busiest times for interpreter services because of parent-teacher conferences, but interpretation also is provided at individualized education plan meetings, student registration and other parent meetings.

The district uses Catholic Charities of Maine for interpretation services and sends documents to a third party to be translated. Westbrook also uses a language line that connects parents to on-demand interpreting.

Clement said one effort that has been approved and will be paid for through grant funding is the purchase of an interpretation system that will allow parents to “wear headsets in order to improve interpreting during larger school events. We’re hoping to purchase a few channels in order to provide interpreting in more than one language.”

Developing systems for wider communications in multiple languages is a goal outlined in the district’s Vision 2021, Clement said.

“As a district, we will continue to find ways to improve upon and expand our interpreting and translation services in order to continue to strengthen our relationships with our (culturally and linguistically diverse) parents,” she said.

Finding ways to offer better translation services is not an issue Westbrook is facing alone. Lancia said many districts “are all competing for the same services.

“At times, although not often this year, we have requested a translator and there isn’t one available, especially in a language that may not be that common,” he said.

The school department is looking into training some employees through an interpreting program at Southern Maine Community College.

“There is sensitive material shared at those (parent-teacher) meetings, so we have to make sure the interpretation is valid,” Lancia said.

Lancia said there may be an opportunity to collaborate with other school districts, perhaps through the Greater Sebago Alliance, on ELL intake, interpretation/translation and other support services.

The goal of the school department’s focus on translation services, Bates said, is to “reduce costs while providing the same or better level of service for parents or students.”

Michael Kelley can be reached at 780-9106 or mkelley@keepmecurrent.com or on Twitter mkelleynews.

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