S.F. schools sometimes rely on kids to translate bad news to parents

According to the San Francisco Unified School District, thousands of conversations take place each day with parents who do not speak English at home. The district has eight translators on staff — four speak Cantonese, and four speak Spanish. You do the math.

So what do teachers do when those translators are unavailable and they need to talk to the immigrant parents of a little troublemaker? District public relations coordinator Heidi Anderson says Plan B is to waylay a secretary — or perhaps even a janitor — with language skills and transform a parent-teacher conference into a parent-teacher-janitor conference. Yet Plan C is even more common: Students are often forced to translate for their parents.

"Yeah, that puts students in a very awkward position," said Jessica Pullano, the outreach coordinator for San Francisco School Volunteers.

Awkward? Try "authoritative." Suddenly a kid being admonished for poor grades, missing homework, or traumatizing the teacher's pet can tell mom or dad about how he saved everyone in the third grade from eating salmonella-tainted green peppers.

In order to ensure teachers' messages actually make it to parents when the janitor is off-duty, S.F. School Volunteers, a local nonprofit that recruits and trains do-gooders, has initiated a program to place Cantonese- and Spanish-speaking translators in city classrooms.

For volunteer Eric Torres, it was a chance to make amends for translating misdeeds of his past. "Well, at one point in my life I was really cutting school a lot," recalled the 33-year-old, who had to translate for his parents as a youngster. "One of the issues [teachers] brought up to my parents was truancy — and I did not translate it that way."

After telling SF Weekly that teachers are sometimes forced to shout "Anyone here speak Cantonese?" into the halls or rely upon the benevolence of 7-year-olds, Anderson phoned back to add that parents whose English skills are so poor they cannot interpret a report card can always find explanations on the district's Web site. When asked how such limited speakers would know to search there, she noted that it's in the student handbook, which is sent home with children at the beginning of the year.

Of course, you don't have to have non-English–speaking parents to stuff that handbook in the trash. And, no, the secretaries and janitors won't deliver it.

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