Editor's Note: Encore Academy declined our interview request during the reporting of this story. However, the story has been updated to include information the school provided after publication.
Public schools are required to serve students from all kinds of families, regardless of race, income, or what language they speak. But schools in Orleans Parish haven’t always done a good job of serving students from immigrant families, especially families still learning English.
After parents complained in 2013, the federal government started monitoring the situation, but parents say they’re still dealing with widespread issues. Now, they're taking matters into their own hands.
'Families Don't Feel Welcome'
Two Orleans Parish moms have just arrived at the headquarters of Nuestra Voz or Our Voice. The group organizes parents - especially immigrant parents - to improve education in the city. The moms pull their chairs into a circle, pass around a bag of dried mango, and start talking with the organizer.
"I think that if they had more people to help parents with the language, there would be more openess in the schools," one mother, who we're calling M, says through a translator. She asked us only to use her first initial because of her immigration status. She said the schools need to hire more interpreters for parents.
M’s daughter attend Encore Academy Charter School. The school has around 80 students who are learning English -- called English Language Learners, or ELLs. But M says she only knows one staff member who speaks Spanish: the school secretary.
"I know that the secretary is there," M said. "But there are times that I have gone to the school, and she tells me that she is already very busy." M said she thinks the bilingual secretary is an asset to the school, but when she's not available or not there, M has had problems getting the answers she needs from school staff.
Reached by email, Encore's leader Terri Smith said actually the school has two teachers who interpret for parents, in addition to the secretary. And staff say they've been intentional about including EL students and families.
"Our EL [English Language] teachers are bilingual in Spanish and provide translation and interpreting services regularly for our families," Encore staff wrote in an email provided after this story aired, and after an initial interview request was declined.
"Many of our EL students have come to us by word-of-mouth from other EL families who have felt welcomed here, networking through their communities, churches, and family friends...We have a continually growing EL population and a robust EL program. While other schools are fomenting anger and frustration by families for working to exclude EL students, Encore is continually working to grow our relationship with these families," the email reads.
The email also said staff have logged more than 200 interpreting sessions, and translated 140 documents this school year for parents.
But M says she’s never been offered interpretation services from EL teachers, and she says written communication with the school is tough, too. While many notes come home translated for her in Spanish, they sometimes still come in English.
Now, M is one of many parents telling her story as part of a study being conducted by Nuestra Voz.
"A lot of our migrant families don’t feel welcome into offices, they don’t feel like they’re particularly cared for and intentionally reached out to to be engaged in their child’s education process," Nuestra Voz organizer Chris Logan said.
The thing is - schools are required to reach out to immigrant parents under federal civil rights and education laws. That means providing trained interpreters, and translating important documents like report cards and special education plans.
A History of Problems Serving Immigrant Families
Schools in Orleans Parish have gotten in trouble before for not following these laws. Back in 2013, parents filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights saying the schools weren’t interpreting for them or translating documents from English to Spanish and Vietnamese. A federal investigation concluded in 2014, when the district agreed to develop a plan to fix the issues. In an emailed statement to WWNO, NOLA Public Schools said that plan has been successful.
"A Language Assistance Plan was developed and action steps were successfully implemented at our direct-run and charter schools to remain in compliance at that time," the statement reads.
But parents and organizers say schools are still falling short, and that it has real consequences, Only 35.6 percent of ELL students graduate on time in Orleans Parish.
"It’s in large part because of the decentralization of the public school system," Southern Poverty Law Center attorney Victor Jones said. The Southern Poverty Law Center represented immigrant parents in the 2013 federal complaint.
Graduation rates and test scores are low for ELL students across the state, but Jones said in Orleans Parish, the problem is complicated by the city's unique charter system. In traditional school systems, the district’s central office is responsible for making sure schools serve immigrant families. But in Orleans Parish, each charter school or charter network has to create its own language access program and find its own resources. Jones said that leaves a lot of room for responsibilities to fall through the cracks.
"We’re now having to find and make sure that 70-plus schools in this city are individually now abiding by state and federal laws," he said.
Where Government Oversight Leaves Gaps, Parents Step In
The Office of Civil Rights said it's still monitoring New Orleans charter schools. And NOLA Public Schools said while individual charter schools are responsible for complying with state and federal laws around ELL education and language access, the district still provides some monitoring, training and oversight.
"The NOLA-PS School Accountability team provides oversight to Charter Management Organizations across the district, and the NOLA-PS Federal Programs team is responsible for the LEA schools being compliant with legal expectations and obligations for ELL services provided to our students and families," the statement reads.
But parents and organizers say that oversight isn’t working, so they’re doing their own. They’re collecting stories from parents like M, and conducting a survey of language services at 70 charter schools.
Laura Venegas Mendoza is with Nuestra Voz and helped survey the schools. She says some school leaders didn’t even know about certain federal requirements, like that they have to provide enrollment information in multiple languages, or get professional interpreters for parent meetings.
"Sometimes they were like, 'Uh am I supposed to? And we were like, 'Oh you're definitely supposed to,'" she said.
M says her experience in Orleans Parish has left her frustrated.
"We think that in coming here to the United States everything will be better -- that education is better, and that it will be enough to put our kids in school," she said, "but it isn’t so."
But, M said that’s why she’s participating in Nuestra Voz's study. Nuestra Voz plans to release their results and recommendations this spring.
WWNO's education reporting is supported by Entergy Corporation.