News From Terre Haute, Indiana

April 21, 2013

Vigo County schools reach out to Latino community

Calendars, guides, registration forms translated to Spanish; interpreters available

Sue Loughlin
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — The Vigo County School Corp. is reaching out to the Latino/Hispanic community to make sure school-age children are enrolling and attending school.

The district, working with a committee, has had school calendars, parent guides and kindergarten registration brochures translated into Spanish. It also has a list of people who can serve as interpreters for those parents who may not speak English.

“We have a long way to go, but we’ve made some real giant steps in getting some relationships started,” said Carolyn Roberts, the school district’s diversity consultant, who has gone to a church and restaurants to meet with members of the Latino/Hispanic community.

Roberts said she got involved after a deacon with El Oasis Church, Carmen Aponte, asked her if she would come talk to some parents who did not speak English, but did have children in schools.

The parents had concerns about their children and school-related issues but could not address them because they did not speak English.

Roberts left the meeting thinking, “I can’t allow parents to hurt because they can’t speak the language.”

One mother was upset because the school assignment called for her to read a book with her daughter, but the mother could not read English.

In another case, a child was having some behavioral problems at school, and the mother didn’t know what to do. “No one was there to interpret,” Roberts said.  She’s not sure the parent even went to school.    

“I came back with the idea that the school district had an obligation to talk about how we can help make this situation better,” she said.

The district, and committee, want to reach out to those Hispanic families who have children not attending school. Some of the parents may not be here legally.

“We are not going to turn you in, or do anything to make your life uncomfortable. We just want to educate your children,” Roberts said.

If someone does want to enroll a child, principals have  a list of interpreters to call.

Roberts also emphasizes children’s student records are private by federal law. “We don’t give records out,” she said, unless there is a court order requiring it.

Carmen Montanez, Indiana State University professor emerita of Spanish, has assisted with translating materials for the school district. She is a Hispanic from Puerto Rico and U.S. citizen.

“I think the corporation is making a lot of effort to help parents and get children in school,” she said.

In the community, there are Hispanics from Puerto Rico who already are U.S. citizens; Hispanics who may not be citizens but who work in professions and meet legal requirements to work; and Hispanics who may have entered the country illegally — typically to work and make money — and whose children may not be in school.

Referring to the latter group, Montanez said, “Those are the people the corporation wants to reach so the kids can come to school and get the education they need.”

Aponte, who helps Hispanics obtain needed services, said they often come to the United States “to better their lives …It’s very difficult where they come from. Very difficult.”

Some don’t know their children can attend school. Also, work — not education — becomes their priority. “We are opening up their eyes to realize education should be a priority and it opens up doors to better their lives,” Aponte said.

Superintendent Dan Tanoos also has been involved in the effort to reach out to the Latino/Hispanic community. “We need to serve every kid in the community, no matter who they are or where they come from,” he said.

The district understands the concerns of those who are not citizens. “We want to put people at ease. We’re not here to turn anyone in or get them in any trouble. We want to serve their child academically” to help them meet their potential, he said. “We will walk them through the process and we can get translators.”

Ray Azar, director of student services, also has been involved. He recognizes that language may be a barrier to enrollment. “We’re trying to take down obstacles to allow them (children) to be enrolled,” Azar said.

The district’s obligation is to enroll any child who presents him or herself to be enrolled, he said.

 Ryan Donlan, assistant professor of educational leadership at Indiana State University, said the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plyler v. Doe in 1982 that children of illegal aliens should be provided an education.

A quote providing the court’s perspective is as follows:

 … “By denying these children a basic education, we deny them the ability to live within the structure of our civic institutions, and foreclose any realistic possibility that they will contribute in even the smallest way to the progress of our nation.”

According to Donlan, it’s a 14th Amendment issue.

He cites the Center for Education & Employment Law's 2010 Desktop Encyclopedia of America School Law:

“The Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment requires that once a program of free public education has been established, the law must be applied equally to all persons.  Thus, children of illegal aliens, children with disabilities, and children of all races are entitled to equal protection of the laws.”

Sue Loughlin can be reached at (812) 231-4235 or sue.loughlin@tribstar.com.