For millions of parents who don’t speak English, navigating their child’s school system can be a behemoth undertaking. They are constantly getting important missives from school—from field trip permission slips to report cards to information about college applications or financial aid—that they may not understand.
It’s a reality that Marifer Sager is working to change in the Portland, Ore., school district as the senior manager of the language-access-services and multicultural affairs department. Sager oversees translation services for the 47,000-student district, which is home to families that speak more than 130 languages.
In that role, she makes sure that all districtwide written communications go out in the five most prominent non-English languages that are spoken at home—Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Somali, and Russian—and that those missives are clear and culturally appropriate. She oversees a group of translators who work directly with families. And she is constantly brainstorming new ways to make sure that parents who don’t speak English receive the same information as English-speaking families at the same time.
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“We need to make sure that we’re communicating with families in the language that they understand and they feel more comfortable with,” Sager said. “I truly believe that having language access can make a whole difference in how a situation is going to end. … It’s transformational.”
After all, as Sager often says, language is a human and civil right. Everyone deserves to be able to access necessary information about their children, and when schools make sure the systems are in place to make that happen, it can improve student and family outcomes. But too often, she said, parents who don’t speak English are left to feel like an afterthought—which may lead them to disengage from the school community or be less likely to speak up about what their child needs.
Sager’s work is personal. She is from Puebla, Mexico, where she went to law school. She immigrated twice as an adult—first to Canada and then to the United States, where she became a citizen last spring. She speaks Spanish, English, and French fluently now, but she didn’t always. And she vividly remembers what it felt like to be in a room where she knew people were talking about her, but she didn’t know what they were saying.
“Being in that medical appointment and not being able to understand what is said about my health and having to trust someone else?” Sager said. “It’s not a nice place to be, let me tell you that.”
She understands firsthand how deeply important language is to immigrant families: “I have been removed from my own culture, I speak English most of the day, I’m [immersed] into American culture, but the one thing that is not going away and I have passed on to my daughter is my language,” she said. “While my customs may have changed, my language still remains something that I use on a regular basis, and I consider it core to my identity.”
That lived experience has helped secure the trust of many non-English-speaking families in the district. (Sixteen percent of students speak a native language that’s not English. About 8 percent of them speak Spanish, 1.8 percent speak Vietnamese, 1.2 percent speak Chinese, 0.7 percent speak Somali, and 0.6 percent speak Russian.)
Sager facilitates many community events, and she said it puts parents at ease when they hear her accent and understand that she’s not judgmental of anyone who doesn’t speak English. Instead, she said, parents come to realize that Sager has a multicultural vision of the world.
“Marifer has completely shifted the culture of how our families and caregivers and staff access language-interpretation and -translation services for our students and families in the district,” said Cynthia Velásquez, a special education program administrator for high school intensive-skills classrooms. “Marifer’s work is all based in social justice and equity and acknowledging the civil rights of our students who speak a language other than English. … I appreciate her voice, her advocacy for families, and her ability to ask questions when others do not.”
Conveying the message, not just the words
The first rule of translating pertinent district information for families? “Never do Google translation,” Sager said empathetically. Her work would be considered transcreation—instead of a direct translation of words in English, Sager’s team works to convey the same tone and message.
For example, a notice in English that says something like, “Welcome, go check in at the front desk!” could sound rude if translated directly in a language like Russian. Instead, the language-access team will add some context and politeness markers, such as: “Welcome to PPS! Please stop by our front desk to check in.”
Regional context matters, too: The Vietnamese community in Portland has been there for a long time, and there can be variations in how they speak compared to what’s spoken in Vietnam. District translators must be aware of those nuances in language.
“Maybe the phrase that we’re using in English is not the best way of saying it in other languages,” Sager said. “We try to make sure we’re talking in the right tone to the right audience. … I try to collaborate with [other educators in the district] on how to stop images and words from presentations that could be oppressive or could be demeaning to a community.”
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The district’s language-access-services staff has developed strong relationships with different communities, Sager said, allowing them the opportunity to check in with, say, Vietnamese or Chinese elders to make sure that any district communication is clear and appropriate.
Sager oversees six full-time staff members (two of them speak Spanish, and the rest speak the other district-supported languages of Vietnamese, Chinese, Russian, and Somali). They convey messages from parents to school leaders. She also supervises two administrative staffers, and 10 part-time translators, two for each supported language. The district contracts with vendors to support access to additional languages, particularly for parent-teacher conferences and special education meetings.
That kind of robust district-level support is so important for teachers and principals, said Alma Velázquez, the principal at Jason Lee Elementary. About 40 to 50 percent of her students have parents who don’t speak English. They’re mostly Spanish or Vietnamese speakers, and while Velázquez and other staff members at the school speak Spanish, there wasn’t until recently a Vietnamese-speaking employee who worked there.
A recent incident at the school shows just what’s at stake for multilingual communications: A teacher accidentally marked a Vietnamese student absent one day, triggering an automatic phone call to the student’s family that their child was not in school. The child’s parents were alarmed because they had sent their child on the bus that day. They didn’t speak English, so they couldn’t call the school and clear up the mistake—instead, they showed up at the school, confused and worried.
Velázquez was able to call the district’s language-access line and immediately get an interpreter, who reassured the family that the phone call was a clerical mistake and their child was safe and in school.
The experience was troubling, but it could have been worse without the language-access-services department, Velázquez said. It also reaffirmed the importance of making sure parents have all the information about their children that they need. Sager has worked with Velázquez to make sure that her school’s newsletter can be sent in three languages: English, Spanish, and Vietnamese.
That kind of planning ahead is critical because not all schools have someone on staff who can provide on-demand translation, Velázquez said. “With [Marifer] at the helm of the language-access department in our district, a lot of these things are prepared ahead of time. [She is] thoughtful and predictive of the needs of our families.”
A tool kit for making sense of special education
Another cornerstone of Sager’s work: translating the complex special education process to make it more accessible and to empower families to speak up on behalf of their children. Terms like “individualized education program,” “least restrictive environment,” and “designated instruction services” are not always intuitively understood.
“Special education is a culture in itself,” Sager said. “Even if you speak English beautifully, Ph.D. level, if you get into [a meeting] and you start getting the terminology, the jargon, … you’re going to be a little bit uncomfortable and lost. Add to that the burden of maybe you don’t have the level of education, maybe you don’t speak the language, maybe you don’t have this system in your country to begin with.”
Her department is so involved in special education that some language-access specialists have attended more IEP meetings than other educators in the district, providing them with a wealth of experience and knowledge that helps them put families at ease during difficult conversations.
And to make the process even more accessible, Sager worked with the special education department to develop a Multilingual Special Education Family Toolkit, which is a set of cards with universal graphics and plain language that walks families through the special education process. The tool kit, which launched in February 2020, consists of a special education overview, a road map for the evaluation and IEP process, eligibility cards that describe all the disability categories in the district, and cards describing available placement and services.
“When we utilize the tool kit with families whose primary language is not English, it helps the family conceptualize the process of special education visually and also helps them be part of the team and create meaningful participation,” said Velásquez, who was one of the special education department staff who came up with the concept. “It can be very difficult and confusing looking at a stack of papers and being asked to sign and put an X in the box, especially if you don’t understand what is going to happen next. The tool kit is the beginning of a way to make things visual.”
The tool kit also makes the special education identification process a little less scary, Sager said.
She was recently in a special education meeting with a family who spoke Mayan and a little Spanish. Their child had been receiving special education services for four years, but when the mother read one of the cards in the tool kit, she started crying, saying, “So this is what my kid has? All this time, I thought what’s going on was way worse.”
“It was a moment that was so grounding for everybody,” Sager said.
A culture of listening and responding
Sager’s colleagues say that she’s created a culture where it’s not acceptable to send out any materials to parents that are not available in the five district-supported languages. At times during the pandemic, district staff wanted to send out urgent missives to families before the translations were ready. But Sager is adamant: “We cannot release anything until it’s translated,” she said. “If that means to wait another hour or two hours, then we do it and we do it right, because everyone is equally important, and we need to make sure they have that content.”
Last year, Sager surveyed community members to understand what they needed from the district. She learned that most immigrant and refugee families were accessing the internet on their phones. They found the images and videos on the district’s main website to be distracting and were frustrated when they had to download PDFs on their phones because they didn’t know where the file went.
In response, Sager’s department created a resources and family-support website that’s available in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Russian, and Somali. It’s bare bones, with no pictures or graphics. The website lets families select their child’s school and see the available academic supports, social-emotional supports, and family supports, which can include transportation and school meals. There are social media share buttons for each resource, including one for WhatsApp, the messaging app that’s popular in immigrant communities.
Parents love it, Sager said, because it gives them all the information they need in a way that’s easy to understand and access. She’s working to create a new section for community resources, like clothing drives and rental assistance.
That kind of collaborative, responsive approach to language-access services is essential to the district’s equity goals, said Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero. Non-English-speaking parents, he said, need to feel supported and prioritized, just as native English speakers do.
“It’s not just translating documents, it’s actually hitting the streets and making sure that families, wherever they’re at, are aware” of the resources available to them, Guerrero said. “Marifer is a tenacious advocate for non-native English-speaking families and communities. She consistently reminds us that the vision that we have for our school district applies to every student and family. I appreciate that she sees her work not as a transactional exercise, but that fundamentally, it’s about empowerment.”
Sager’s long-term goal is to expand the number of district-supported languages so that more parents are empowered to advocate for their children. To do so, she will have to contend with limited resources and competing district priorities—but Sager’s passion for the work drives her, as does her memory of what it was like living in a place where she didn’t speak the language.
“I see the opportunity to transform a system,” she said. “Imagine that mom who wasn’t able to understand what was happening [with her child receiving special education services] and how that dynamic changed at home [after she learned the truth]. It was something so little that we’re doing—in reality, we could be doing so much more—and just that little thing created that big of an impact.
“I think of the families that come to the website and say, ‘Oh, I was able to understand—my school does have mental health services, and now my student can receive those services.’ I mean, honestly, it’s transformative. There’s no other word for me.”
Madeline Will is a reporter for Education Week who covers the teaching profession.
Coverage of strategies for advancing the opportunities for students most in need, including those from low-income families and communities, is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonk12.org . Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage. A version of this article appeared in the February 16, 2022 edition of Education Week as Using the Power Of Language To Serve Students and Families