Durham schools’ Latino population is growing. Now, so will understanding

Alexandra Valladares (left), a Durham parent and community activists, helps an unidentified Hispanic mother share concerns about her child's academic progress during a recent school board meeting.
Alexandra Valladares (left), a Durham parent and community activists, helps an unidentified Hispanic mother share concerns about her child's academic progress during a recent school board meeting. Durham Public Schools

Megan McCurley admits that she isn’t the best interpreter.

But as a Colombian who speaks both English and Spanish, she’s often called on to help non-English speaking Latino parents communicate with the Durham school board.

“I always end up interpreting for someone, and I’m a terrible interpreter,” said McCurley, the program coordinator with America Reads/America Counts at Duke University’s Office of Durham and Regional Affairs.

At a recent school board meeting, McCurley asked for an interpreter to be at every board meeting. Her prompt led Durham Public Schools leaders to agree to have a Spanish interpreter on hand at every school board meeting and work session.

Before, parents who needed one had to call Durham Public Schools to schedule one in advance.

“This has been a long time coming,” McCurley said. “I’ve been here for 10 years, and it’s been an issue for 10 years.”

The growth in Latino students means Hispanic parents show up at school board meetings more frequently now to advocate for their children. They have often brought their own interpreters because they didn’t know to call in advance or made the decision to attend a board meeting at the last minute.

McCurley said parents also felt a lot of anxiety about calling to request an interpreter, then not attending a meeting due to some unforeseen circumstance.

“We’ve been really careful about asking for interpreters because sometimes life happens,” McCurley said. “We got scolded once because we asked for an interpreter and the interpreter wasn’t needed. No one else feels this kind of pressure.”

A spokesman for DPS said the district is committed to its Hispanic students and their families.

“Going forward, DPS will be providing Spanish-language interpretation support at every board meeting and work session without requiring anyone to request it ahead of time,” said DPS spokesman Chip Sudderth. “As part of the implementation of our new Strategic Plan, our board authorized our request to fund three additional interpreter positions across our district.”

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Other school districts across the Triangle handle interpreters like DPS has in the past.

In Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (CHCCS), for example, interpreters must be requested in advance. CHCCS spokesman Jeff Nash said the district will ask interpreters to attend meetings when large numbers of non-English speakers are expected to attend a meeting. The same is true in Orange County Schools and the Wake County Public Schools System.

Beyond board meetings

Hispanic students now make up 31 percent of DPS’ enrollment, the highest percentage of area school districts. They trail black students, who are 46 percent of students, by 15 percentage points. Ten years ago, Hispanics made up only 17 percent of the student population.

At Holt Elementary Language Academy, where the focus is global studies and foreign language and roughly half the students are Latino, Principal Donya Jones is already living the future.

“About 80 percent of the traffic that comes through our office in the morning need translation,” Jones said.

The bulk of that work falls on one Spanish-speaking coordinator who handles most of that traffic. Holt has a few other bilingual staffers and families help each other with language issues.

“We could use more help,” Jones said.

She said the move by DPS to add require interpreters at board meetings is a good one.

“If we’re going to be talking to them about their children, we need to be talking to them in their language,” Jones said.

Meeting the needs

In response to the growing Hispanic population, DPS has increased staffing in its ESL Resource Center, which supports Spanish-speaking families. It will get three new staffers this year at a cost of $150,000 to bring the total number to 21.

And Superintendent Pascal Mubenga has pledged as part of his five-year strategic plan to increase the number of educators and staff members who identify as Hispanic from 3 percent to 10 percent by 2023.

Tony Macias, a member of tilde, a Durham-based language a cooperative that advances language justice by providing interpreting, translation, training and consulting services, said it’s important that interpreters are hired to do only one job.

“When you have them to just interpret, that frees up other bilingual staff to contribute in the way they were hired to do instead of constantly being pulled away to interpret,” Macias said.

He said tilde provides some services for groups such as Parent-Teacher Organizations for free, but hopes to build the business so that members of the co-op can earn a living.

In addition to interpreters, school board member Matt Sears would like to provide child care during meetings to increase participation among Hispanics and others who might otherwise find it difficult to attend.

“To me, that’s a valuable and doable service we could provide to get valued community engagement at our board meetings,” he said.

For McCurley, the commitment to have interpreters at school board meetings is an appreciated first step

“I see a willingness to change now,” McCurley said. “I see an openness now for the conversation.”

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645