Original URL: http://www.azcentral.com/news/education/0830InterpretersZ10.html

Bilingual staff translates for special ed students
The Arizona Republic
Aug. 30, 2003
Mel MelÚndez
 12:00 AM

Mesa Public Schools employees fluent in Spanish and English can pocket a little extra change while assisting the Spanish-speaking parents of special-education students.

The 75,000-student district will soon train its latest batch of bilingual employees to serve as interpreters for monolingual Spanish speakers during the parent meetings required by the special-education act. Congress passed the act in 1975 after finding that more than half of all special-education students did not receive adequate educational services.

Nearly 40 Mesa employees now serve as interpreters during the meetings, which include those held to evaluate students' special needs and those held to review the individualized plans that outline students' services. Nearly 7,400 of the district's students are categorized as special education.

Collectively, Mesa's interpreters speak more than a half-dozen languages, including Portuguese, Farsi, Vietnamese and Tagalog. But this school year's training sessions, scheduled for Sept. 11 and 25, are for Spanish-English interpreters because of the district's growing share of students from Spanish-speaking homes, said Lorie Gerkey, special education area director.

"It's where our greatest need is, so we're going to focus on Spanish speakers this time around," she said. "But we're always looking for those fluent in other languages, as well. Right now we're trying to find employees fluent in Arabic."

The 10,000-employee district prefers using in-house interpreters because it's cost prohibitive to hire outside interpreters, Gerkey said. Mesa employees get paid their normal hourly rate to translate during the meetings, which take place before or after school.

Special-ed students typically require two or three parents' meetings every school year. The district annually spends between $5,000 and $7,000 to pay interpreters.

"You don't do it for the money though," said Irene Esparza, one of the district's full-time translators/interpreters. "You do it because you know you're really helping these families.

"These meetings can consist of 15 people, and that can be intimidating to anyone, let alone someone who doesn't speak English."

The specialized language used in special-education documents can also be confusing, so the act requires that school districts ensure parents  understand the information - including providing explanations in their native language, Gerkey said.

"We have to do this," she said. "It's our obligation under the law because it's critical that parents understand what services are being provided."

Hence, the district also translates all of its special-education documents, often requiring the use of outside translators.

Mesa began using informal translators when Congress passed the special-education act in 1975. By 1988, it had formalized the process to grow its own interpreters, Gerkey said.

"I always encourage bilingual employees to serve as interpreters because it's so rewarding to help people who are in a disadvantaged position," Esparza said. "The parents are so appreciative that it really brings home  you're doing a good thing."

Reach the reporter at mel.melendez@arizonarepublic.com or (602) 444-7758.