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Tech: A language translator allows districts to reach out to ELLs

Inclusive apps help schools advance equity
  • WARM WELCOME—Des Moines Public Schools—along with translating its website—runs a summer jump-start program that helps students and families who are refugees acclimate to the district and the community.
  • THIS IS IOWA—ELL students and teachers come together for an orientation at Des Moines Public Schools. Students get an introduction to what the state of Iowa is all about while teachers brush up on language skills.
  • EIGHTY-PLUS DIALECTS IN TEXAS—Camille Cavazos, a fourth-grade teacher in Harlingen Consolidated ISD, communicates with families through an app that can translate information into more than 80 languages.

CIOs can play a key role in their district’s efforts to increase parent engagement as part of wider initiatives to advance equity. Providing multilingual content on school websites and apps presents these outreach opportunities—as well as costs and challenges.

“The overall benefit is to get the conversation started,” says Jason Olsen, communications officer for Salt Lake City Schools. The district serves 24,000 students speaking 80 to 90 languages.

“There sometimes is a reluctance because of language barriers for parents to come talk to the district,” Olsen says. “We want to make sure that communication happens, and if people have a question they can get those questions answered.”

School districts serve increasingly diverse populations. Some of the largest non-English speaking populations across the country include Spanish, Arabic, Somali, Vietnamese, Karen, Nepali, Burmese and Hmong.


Sidebar: Key content for translation


For example, 75 to 100 languages and dialects are spoken in Des Moines Public Schools in Iowa, says Phil Roeder, director of communications and public affairs.

To maintain open lines of communication, districts can choose machine translation, human translation or a combination of both. These approaches come with a range of costs—and various levels of reliability when it comes to the accuracy of the translations.

What about the lunch menu?

For machine translation, many school staff members turn to Google Translate, which offers a free plug-in that can translate an entire website into more than 100 languages on demand.

Some districts use Google’s Website Translator plug-in as is, which means a web administrator can select a few configuration options and then copy and paste the automatically generated JavaScript code into the district’s site.

Some content management systems support third-party Google Translate plug-ins that eliminate the need to copy and paste any code. Depending on the configuration options, Google Translate appears as a tab, button or banner on the district’s site.

Des Moines Public Schools customized Google Translate for its website with the help of its in-house graphics and web designer. Links to the available languages blend into the site seamlessly rather than appearing as a disparate element on the page.

“We wanted to at least have a drop-down menu that matched the rest of our website, so we did a little bit of work just to blend it in with the graphics standards of our site,” Roeder says.

Alejandra Bosch, translations manager at St. Paul Public Schools in Minnesota, says Google’s accuracy varies. She says the Spanish translations are acceptable, but warns “you have to be careful because things are translated out of context and there are certain terms in English that don’t have a translation.”

As for less common languages—such as Karen, which is spoken in Burma and parts of Thailand—the technology does not perform as well, Bosch adds. Some districts include a disclaimer on their website, explaining the limitations of the Google Translate service and the fact that the district has no control over the service itself.

One of the limitations of Google Translate is that it may not work with third-party apps, embedded PDF documents or text in images.

Gretchen Kramer, web manager at Albuquerque Public Schools, says the service can’t access the app that displays school lunch menus on the district’s website. To work around this problem, Salt Lake City Schools converts documents to either HTML or PHP pages, which Google can easily translate.

Finding human translators

Some district leaders offer human translation in conjunction with machines, while a few—such as those at St. Paul Public Schools—have abandoned machine translation entirely.

“At this point in our district, we believe that a machine is not going to replace the human,” Bosch says. “It’s a tool that we could use to help us when we’re translating something, but it needs to be vetted by a human in the end.”

St. Paul Public Schools employs full-time translators and interpreters who are native speakers of Hmong, Somali, Spanish and Karen. District staff submit translation requests, and then the translator collaborates with a communications specialist to translate the document or recorded message. The process typically requires four to five business days.

Most of the district’s website is English-only. Some key content—such as a school choice Q-and-A document, calendars, free and reduced-price lunch information, and school contacts—is translated into four languages. Finding people with the requisite skill set presents a challenge because they have to be proficient speakers and writers of both languages.

“It’s difficult to find those individuals,” says Jacqueline LeRoy, director of English-as-a-new-language department at Syracuse City Schools in New York. Rather than hiring its own in-house translation staff, the Syracuse district uses Google Translate on its website and outsources critical communications to a translation company.

Mobile apps and other tools

Numerous school communication apps now offer translation capabilities, and district leaders are taking advantage of those tools to engage ELL parents.

An app called Remind translates messages to more than 70 languages. Teachers at Selma USD in California use the app to send text messages to parents. At the click of a button, parents can translate the message into their native language. Likewise, teachers can translate parents’ replies into English.

“It’s a great way to ensure that parents are aware of homework assignments and the latest news,” says Efraín Tovar, coordinator of district technology services.

Syracuse City Schools has implemented TalkingPoints, which translates text into more than 20 languages, as well as the Mantra Lingua PENpal, a handheld device shaped like a large pen. The user touches it to a “soundspot” on a printed phrase chart, and the device speaks the phrase in the selected language.

For example, the chart includes a list of common questions and statements, such as “Welcome, I will help you register your child,” along with translations in seven different languages. Staff can use the pen to select a question or statement and a target language, and the pen will speak the translation.

The district’s website also provides the phrase charts with linked audio files.

At Harlingen Consolidated ISD in Texas, fourth-grade teacher Camille Cavazos posts homework and classroom news with the Bloomz teacher-parent communication app. The free tool translates to more than 80 languages. Cavazos introduces parents to the app at an open house, and teaches them how to tweak the settings to translate her posts.

Cavazos says the translations have been pivotal for her classroom: “The parents are more involved and I don’t have a problem with homework.”


Leila Meyer is a freelance writer in British Columbia.