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January 25, 2015

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Lost in translation: District’s cost-cutting move targets non-English-speaking parents of special-needs students

When his son was diagnosed with autism a few years ago, Fernando Romero worked with the Clark County School District to develop a personalized curriculum for the boy.

Teachers reviewed test scores and grades, recommended special services and set annual learning goals for Romero's son, now 8. All of the information was written into an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, a federally mandated contract between parents and schools that governs the education of a special-needs child.

For parents of the nearly 32,000 special-needs children in Clark County, the IEP serves as a roadmap to help keep students on track to succeed. These 20-page-long documents are often dense with academic and legal language, making it difficult to understand.

It helps that Romero speaks English fluently. But that's not the case for the parents of 8,000 English-language learner students with special needs in the district, the majority of whom speak Spanish at home.

Federal law mandates that a translator be present at all parent-teacher meetings where the IEP of an English-language learner student is discussed. Additionally, the School District translates IEP documents from English to the student's native language.

With the written translation, parents are able to read their child's translated IEP in their native language, understand it and refer back to it at any time. The goal of these verbal and written translations is to have parents be "full participants" in the education of their children.

However, in an attempt to save costs and "realign resources," the cash-strapped district is now contemplating dropping the written translation service for one of its most at-risk student populations. It still will be an option for parents, but one the district is betting few English-language learner parents will take.

This cost-saving proposal has Romero concerned for the many non-English-speaking families he represents as the president of Hispanics in Politics.

The community activist said he consults his son's IEP on a regular basis to ensure the youngster is getting the kind of education he needs. While a verbal translation is helpful, Romero said he still would want a physical copy of his son's IEP, just in case something goes awry.

If the School District stops translating IEP documents, Romero believes thousands of Hispanic parents could be left in the dark about their children's education.

"As a father of an autistic child, I am very upset to hear that they are planning to do this," Romero said. "I know how long it takes to understand the IEP and how technical it is. I'm appalled by this."


To understand where the School District is coming from, it's helpful to take a few steps back.

Since he came to town nearly two years ago, Superintendent Dwight Jones has sought to make the School District more efficient and cost effective. Before asking for more state funding, Jones said he wanted to ensure the best "return on investment" for every dollar currently spent.

To that end, Jones hired an outside consultant to conduct an efficiency study, published the district's budget online to obtain public feedback and tasked Student Services Officer Kim Wooden to look for potential cost-savings in every department.

These measures seem to be paying off. By repurposing some of its pre-kindergarten teachers and replacing an outdated student information system, the district expects to save more than $6 million this year. These savings will be used to hire more teachers for the district's crowded classrooms, district spokeswoman Amanda Fulkerson said.

Last month, a district consultant leaked a more controversial cost-saving plan to the Sun's editorial board. The proposal involved the district's 36 Spanish-language translators for English-language learner students.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act mandates that school districts that receive federal funding provide translators at every parent-teacher conference where a student's IEP is discussed. The federal law stipulates that IEP meetings be verbally translated but doesn't say whether districts should provide written translations of IEPs.

"The public agency must take whatever action is necessary to ensure that the parent understands the proceedings of the IEP team meeting, including arranging for an interpreter for parents … whose native language is other than English," the law states. "The public agency must give the parent a copy of the child's IEP at no cost to the parent."

Since 2004 — when the federal law was reauthorized — the district has erred on the side of caution and translated thousands of IEP documents each year.

However, with only 36 translators, the IEP translations quickly became backlogged. Translated IEP documents were regularly sent home six to 12 months late, meaning families with English-language learner students were receiving IEP documents for a student’s fourth-grade year just as their child entered the fifth grade.

By that time, the translated IEP was a moot issue.


To solve what was seen as a wasted effort, the district initially thought about cutting the written translation service and eliminating about half of the translators.

That would have saved the district $1.2 million, CCSD consultant Frederick Hess said earlier this year in a meeting with the Sun’s editorial board.

"The idea that undocumented folks who are getting this 18-page document mailed to them are going to make any sense of it is unlikely, and, more to the point, the district is backlogged and mailing these things out 12 months late," Hess said. "This is $1.2 million that could be spent to fund about 17 classroom positions that is instead getting wasted."

After receiving public pushback to Hess' comments — including one from a special education teacher at a recent school board meeting — the School District seemingly reversed course.

The district recently announced it would not be cutting any translators, but it still was planning to drop the translation service for non-English-speaking parents of special-needs students.

Instead, translators would be reassigned to various school zones to give staff and parents greater access to translation services, Fulkerson said. This decision would save the district $20,000.

"Rick misquoted it in his editorial piece on the translators — we’re not looking to cut that," Jones told the Sun's editorial board in a subsequent meeting. "What I need are translators who are closer to where the kids and the parents are. We're reallocating translators to actually be in regions that would have direct impact immediately instead of (sending home a translated IEP months late). By the time that document comes in everybody’s moved on.

"We’ve got to change that paradigm. This is such a good-news story."


While the district touted the $20,000 in cost-savings, Hispanic leaders in town were outraged.

"They are being pennywise and pound foolish," said civil rights activist Vicenta Montoya, who founded the Si Se Puede Latino Democratic Caucus. "This does a huge disservice to our parents."

"There is going to be a lot of backlash (if they go through with this)," said Larry Mason, the first Hispanic elected to the School Board. "Our parents need these translation services."

Even though the School District still will offer verbal translations as an option, Hispanic leaders argued many parents with English-language learner students don't know how the school system works and will fail to ask for a translated IEP.

An oral translation may not reflect word for word what is written in the IEP and is more likely to lead to misunderstandings and miscommunications, said Sylvia Lazos, a UNLV professor of civil rights.

"It's like agreeing to buy a house without reading the mortgage," Lazos said. "This will inhibit their ability to navigate the system like a white, middle-class parent."

While parents of other special-needs children can better advocate for their children because they can read their IEPs, parents of English-language learner students will just have to remember what was said in a parent-teacher meeting, said Jose Solorio, a former school board member and Hispanic activist.

The district is trying to take advantage of this vulnerable population to save a small amount of money, he said.

"It's sad, it's shameful, and it's really not legal," Solorio said.

Some Hispanic activists threatened possible legal action, including filing a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights. They may have a strong case.

A similar complaint against the Cleveland Metropolitan School District in 2011 alleged that the district failed to provide school information to non-English-speaking families in a language that they could understand, in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Title VI of the federal law states that school districts have an obligation to ensure "meaningful access" to its programs and "adequately notify" all parents about school information.

The Office of Civil Rights struck up a compromise with Cleveland officials, who agreed to develop and institute a plan to provide translations to parents of English-language learner students.

If this precedent-setting resolution in Ohio is any indication, Clark County may be forced to reconsider its proposal to eliminate translation services, Montoya said.

The translation of IEPs “is a responsibility that the School District has," she said. "They can't shirk it. They have to find a way."

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  1. It's cool.....the US just gave 250 Million to know money better spent on people in other country rather then our own.

  2. How are the CCSD Union Bosses doin' Hope they're doing ok on their huge 6 figure+ salaries.

  3. Immigration reform will be hard to get through because people think that the system is being milked by non-English speaking people, even though they might be legal residents or citizens. English is difficult to learn, but people must try .

  4. Wow! Another "crisis!" It doesn't stop, does it? Illegals swamping the school's, ER's, welfare rolls. What part of "The country's broke" do the leftists not understand? Time to tell illegals to "not let the door hit them in the behind" as they leave the country to ones who did the right thing and deserve to be here!

  5. PART 1 OF 2
    This article states, "The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act mandates that school districts that receive federal funding provide translators at every parent-teacher conference where a student's IEP is discussed. The federal law stipulates that IEP meetings be verbally translated but doesn't say whether districts should provide written translations of IEPs."

    Having recently participated in an IEP meeting where the parent solely spoke,read, and thought in their "home" language, the decision the district has made is workable. By NOW, most standard IEP documents are translated on the other side in another language. IF there is a concern, the meeting should be taped/recorded, and the parent given a copy of that recording with the usual IEP paperwork to retain for their records.

    Many of these ESL parents are barely literate, some having just an elementary school education, so anything in writing is confusing to them. These parent(s) are given a copy of the IEP paperwork and told and encouraged to maintain those records for future use. But what usually happens to those papers is that they will be stored in an envelope and never looked upon again. When these folks move, they usually LOSE this valuable paperwork that provides for services anywhere in the USA for their child. Happens all the time.

    Every step of the IEP conference pauses to make certain the concerns of the parent are addressed, that they fully understand how their child qualified and is eligible for services, what services and how many minutes each day and where these services are rendered, and that at ANY TIME the parent has the ability and right to change any of it, including denying their child of services. Once a child has an IEP, they are given the necessary supports until age 23, or until they(at legal age), or their parent has them exited from the program.

    Blessings and Peace,

  6. PART 2 OF 2
    IF the minority communities are worried about this, they should avail themselves as community volunteers to assist in areas of need for translation. Also, such organizations should avail themselves to provide vouchers for child prescription glasses, since it is a major problem with children having the necessary glasses to read and parents routinely don't provide them due to their family finances in this bust economy. You have to keep in mind, that many, if not most, of the ESL parents are illegal immigrants, and the majority don't bother to learn English, further handicapping their children, crippling their offspring's education.

    Although our American society is sympathetic and compassionate towards the truly needy, American taxpayers cannot continue the path we have been on with supplying and accomodating the demands of minority communities who simply refuse to assimulate into our culture in the United States of America. Somewhere, we have to draw the line and do what benefits ALL, not just for the few minority squeaky wheels that also exist within the whole.

    The school district is doing what is best for all concerned here. Truth be told, resources have been spread so thin, that classroom teachers have to go through so many hoops, delays, and often REstart the initial RTI and SIP process for needy children (most often due to transiency and attendance issues), that at-risk AND special needs children fall through the cracks, are NOT served special education services until 4th or 5th grades, and by then, it is a near lost cause. The current process to identify and get these children qualified is so time-consuming and record intensive, that any problem with staffing a school with QUALIFIED educators in this screening process will adversely affect a child's ability to qualify. Interventions must be given outside the regular classroom by CERTIFICATED AND QUALIFIED educators, who are present, not absent. Substitutes will bring all the hard documentation work to naught, and the whole process will have to be RESTARTED....extremely frustrating. Students fall through these cracks, and it can go on for several years, or until the school becomes functional or they move to a functional school. Sad to say.

    The money needs to be used where we are most effective for the CHILDREN at this time. The school district is making a good call here!

    Blessings and Peace,

  7. Do the MATH. CCSD admits that at least 17% of the kids are illegals. Upwards of 50,000. Teachers want say 25:1 class size. That's 2,000 teachers at about $100,000 (with benefits) a year. So that's about $200,000,000 just for teachers. Add on mega bucks for buildings, utilities, free food (breakfast, lunch, snacks, groceries to take home), school clothes (from non-profits), vaccines (free clinics), health care (UMC) and you think Nevada taxpayers and businesses can chip in more and more? Illegals must GO HOME. If we stop handing them food, money, shelter, health care.....many will leave on their own. We can EXPEL (Nix costs of deportation) everyone who cannot show they entered legally. Bus tickets south at $75 each--from the non-profits. Confiscate any assets and income to defray costs--Legislation modeled on law enforcement confiscating proceeds of drug crimes. Granted SOME of the kids didn't make the decision to come here but they are here and should not be. They have opportunities in their countries of origin to work the economies and deal with the politics. They have NO RIGHT to vote here and shouldn't be given it--or we'll be picking up the tabs for eternity while OUR kids go without.

  8. Sounds like an appropriate cut. Unlikely that much of this stuff is read in ANY LANGUAGE. If immigrants want to become Americans, they can learn the language, pass the physical, do the work.

  9. Reading Roberta's 1:58 post I'm reminded of Third Reich solutions....expulsion, confiscation, property seizures.

  10. 20 pages and it only covers one school year? That's the problem - excessive bureacracy generating too much useless paperwork! Seems to me you could pre-can a grade appropriate lesson plan in a multitude of languages, then have the counselor tailor the plan for each student by "point and click" on those that apply to that student. Translator demands would be minimal.