Back to Rules: Complying with Federal Language Laws in Schools

A primer on the laws you need to communicate with EL students

As a school administrator, it’s your job to listen to and champion the voice of every student and family under your purview.  But how can you do that for students and families that do not speak English?

If you work at one of the nearly 75% of public schools in the United States that enroll English Learner (EL) students, you’ve likely asked yourself this question.  And you may have found yourself frustrated by the options you have to answer it.

It isn’t always practical—or even possible—for schools to secure qualified in-person interpreters for every interaction in every language, yet they are required by law to provide interpretation services for non-English speaking families.

We’re here to help you.  Below is a primer on the laws you need to follow and tips on how to follow them—efficiently, cost-effectively, and empathetically.

The Laws

No fewer than six federal laws and regulations refer explicitly or implicitly to interpretation and translation in a school setting—not just to prevent discrimination, but to ensure all students get an equal chance at academic achievement.  These laws:

  1. Prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, or limited English proficiency (LEP) and outline “reasonable steps” to ensure LEP children can access federally-funded programs (learn more here).

  2. Require that schools provide equal opportunities for each student, regardless of national origin and language, and outline schools’ responsibilities in educating ELL students (learn more here).

  3. Outline what information schools need to provide in languages LEP parents can understand.

  4. Note that communication with non-English speaking parents demands the highest standards in translation and interpretation. Assessments, notices, consent requests, and meetings must all be given in the child or parent’s native language.

As a school administrator, you need to communicate with LEP parents in a language they understand about anything you’d communicate to English-speaking parents.

That includes information about:

  • Academic achievement

  • Annual report cards

  • Student discipline policies

  • Parents’ Right-to-Know

  • Plans for “school improvement”

  • Supplemental educational services

  • Parent programs and meetings

  • Reasons the child has been identified as LEP and the language-assistance programs provided to help

(See Titles I and III of the No Child Left Behind Act for a comprehensive list.)

So How Can You Serve Your Students?

The US Department of Justice requires that schools meet all parents’ language needs, regardless of a given language’s prevalence in the school district. Schools can’t simply rely on bilingual staff to communicate with parents intermittently; they need dedicated, high-quality interpreters who are specially trained in required terminology and confidentiality. By law, those interpreters need to be free to parents—so they need to be affordable to the school. If you’re worried your interpreters aren’t providing the level of service you need to engage all your students and their parents at all times, you have two options:

  1. Request technical assistance from the Office for Civil Rights or one of the nation’s Equity Assistance Centers, which help with any issues concerning ELL students including translation and localization.

  2. Consider using over-the-phone interpretation (OPI) to guarantee the broadest possible scope of languages covered, with the highest quality, in a cost-effective manner.

If you use OPI, all the expertise, reliability, and scalability you need to fulfill hundreds of languages—rare or common—is built into the solution and available in real-time.

Also: Are you in the State of Texas? Lionbridge now offers your district the opportunity to access highly qualified, experienced interpreters (24/7) at the most competitive rates ever: $.54 a minute for Spanish and $.61 a minute for all other languages. Contact us to learn more.

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