Dr. Jennifer Love
Dr. Jennifer Love oversees language access services in Prince George's County Public Schools, Maryland. In this interview with Colorín Colorado, she discusses what school districts need to know about increasing and expanding language access for multilingual families, as well as what language access looks like during the COVID-19 pandemic.
You can see more in this article Dr. Love co-authored with Laura Gardner from Immigrant Connections:
Part I: Introduction
Meet Dr. Jennifer Love
Hello, my name is Dr. Jennifer Love, and I am currently the supervisor of Language Access and Engagement in Prince George's County Public Schools in Maryland. And essentially that work revolves around ensuring equitable access for families who are culturally and linguistically diverse. Ensuring that interpreting and translation services are available for those families to participate in everything that happens in the school system.
Part II: What Do Districts Need to Know About Language Access?
What are the legal requirements related to language access?
So, when we think about the legal requirements that align with language access this takes us back some time to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And that act essentially starts to pave the way for language access, specifically around national origin, ensuring that there are non-discriminatory practices. So that, Title VI, the 1964 Civil Rights Act led us to a memo from the office of Civil Rights in 1970 and that memo essentially outlines for something for school districts because it started to give us a little more understanding of what school districts needed to do.
And it was very basic information but at that time it was that school districts needed to ensure that families who were not speakers of English for anything that was called to the attention of other families who were English speakers, that they needed to have something to ensure that they could understand what was taking place as well.
And that was pretty broad and then quite honestly it was not until 2015 that guidance was released from the U.S. Department of Education, Department of Justice, Office of Civil Rights, that really began to outline with some specificity what schools and school districts are required to do to ensure accessibility for parents who are not native speakers of English.
That really meant there were several overarching components of that guidance and that guidance includes that schools and school districts must be providing language access services for families even if the child is not an English learner. That also of course means that schools and school districts need to be cognizant and deliberate around the data that they're keeping that helps everyone to know who are the English learning, who are the families who would be in need of those services.
And then also it began to outline some very specific information around who could provide the language access services, focusing on the fact that students should never be providing services, that family members should not be providing services. That schools and school districts should be utilizing trained staff and specifically trained interpreting staff to provide those services to families in language, language access which means of course interpreting and translation.
So that's kind of where we find ourselves now with regard to the guidance from the federal government. Various states and locals have other guidance, the state of Maryland specifically has guidance around translation for special education and I know we'll probably get to communicate a little bit more about that.
But it's very dependent on the state as to the specificity around certain documents for translation but the overarching legality is that as schools and school districts, we must provide these services to families to ensure that they are equitably engaged.
What are school district's obligations in providing language access?
So, as we think about the diversity of school districts across the nation, it is really imperative, we are very well aware of the research around family engagement and we know that it's critical for families to be able to have the opportunity to be engaged in their children's education. And in doing so we certainly have an obligation as school districts across the country to offer language access services for families to be able to engage.
And this is regardless of their country of origin, this is regardless of the language that they speak. It's important that we are seeking out resources to be able to meet the needs of those families to be able to, you know, overcome this obstacle for engagement in meetings and workshops and everything that's called to the attention of families within a school district.
So this guidance from 2015 from the Office of Civil Rights really gave school districts some kind of, an undergirding of legality in being able to start to really determine how they would build this framework for their language access services. It really gave us some specifics around what had to be provided and also how those services needed to be manifest within schools.
And primarily it really called on school districts to begin utilizing trained interpreting and translation staff. That we were no longer in a place that we could call a staff member because they were bilingual, because, to provide interpreting services. And it's really important that we very clearly identify the difference between the provision of services that are direct services, what I like to call one to one services in a language when a parent comes in or a parent makes a phone call and is able to speak with someone at the school who is a speaker of their language.
That is an amazing connection for families to be able to do that. But then there are also instances in which we have very specific meetings around vital information and with those meetings it's imperative that trained interpreting staff are part of that communication to ensure that all of the interpreting standards are upheld and to ensure that we are never as a school or school district creating a perception of partiality.
That is part of the fundamental, one of the fundamentals around interpreting is that we are following those, that code of ethics around interpreting services and that we are really differentiating bilingual staff versus an interpreter who is providing those impartial, confidential services.
What happens when school districts are out of compliance?
So, when, in cases in which a district does not align in their compliance with what is being required for language access, there can be a complaint brought against that district. And this has happened with numerous districts across the country, unfortunately, but I think that the good part from this type of complaint is it helps you, you know in a sense to once you know what you should be doing for families to really dig into how your framework of services exists for language access and how to improve those services to ensure that you're meeting the needs of families.
Ultimately, the bottom line around the guidance is to ensure that families have this equitable access. So, in the case of an OCR complaint there are specific guidelines around what needs to be changed. Now, that could range from ensuring that translated documents are available for the most represented language in the district. That could be that there needs to be some type of measure for when an in-person interpreter not available, what is the meaningful language access that will be provided for that family to be able to connect with the school.
Whether it's the administrator or with a teacher. That could also mean what is a school district doing in terms of how they are providing information to the larger, the broader community, the systemic community around information that is critical to the school system or is specific to the school. So all of those areas are really imperative around this understanding that we don't want this to be, we don't want it to be considered a punitive system.
But it's imperative that everyone knows what the guidance is so that we can, everyone can make arrangements and ensure that there are resources available to support families.
How do districts improve their language access?
So, for districts who are really beginning to explore how to adequately provide language access to families one of the important notes is to really kind of do an assessment of what is your district doing well? There are absolutely things that districts are doing well around language access and it's important to look to those areas of communication and determine well how do we improve upon this?
What are the gaps? That really comes down to where are the gaps and the areas that families are not really having access to meaningful communication with staff. So, I really implore school districts to think about what does that mean for our district when it comes to in person interpreting for example. If we're not at the place of in person interpreting, what are the other alternatives that are available that still provide meaningful access for families?
Well that might come in the way of telephonic interpreting. And telephone interpreting can be much more accessible, and it also provides trained interpreters in an on demand situation to be able to provide interpreting usually in a multitude of languages and that is meaningful access. The most meaningful access of course is in person interpreting. So really it comes down to determining if you are willing to put forth the resources to, to develop an interpreting and a translation program.
It is not without cost, however there are certainly advocacy efforts around ensuring that these resources are available because when it comes down to it you know it's a situation in which we can really put these resources at the forefront of what we are doing to connect with families. And if schools and school districts are serious about connecting with families and ensuring that diverse populations of families have the opportunity to engage in everything that school districts have to offer, this critical resource really makes equity real for schools and school districts.
What does language access look like in special education?
So special education is, it's very nuanced within the field of education in the sense that we inherently want parents to be able to be fully engaged in the special education process. But the reality of the process is that it can be an enigma, even for families who are speakers of English. It is very complex, and there is, there are specific processes for every step of the identification process and moving through a child receiving services.
So what becomes really important for the provision of language access is ensuring that along the way, whether it's at the start of the child's educational career with an IFSP, a program that's at the beginning of their toddler years or whether they are being identified for an IEP, an individualized education program, that parents a part of every conversation around that child.
And that the interpreter is really utilized in a way to provide that accurate communication on behalf of the school or school system and that the interpreter is also in place to be able to be that ear to connect the information from the family to the school. One of the really critical parts of an IEP meeting for example, or a special education meeting, is to ensure that the parent feels comfortable enough to communicate their concerns and to communicate what they have observed from their child.
Because we know that parents are seeing children so many more hours than the school will ever see them. And parents are their child's first teacher. So we have to value the voice of the parent. And that interpreter is critical in bridging that communication to ensure that the special education team is very aware of what the needs are of the student outside of what they have observed in the school setting.
The laws around special education are also very specific. Under IDA's the laws are specific around the provision of services for families to ensure that families have information in a language that they can understand. So that will include everything from the oral interpretation that is happening with a meeting to the documents that families are receiving, whether it's the procedural guidelines, the procedural safeguards, whether it is the prior written notice information, evaluation reports.
It is critical that that information is available to families in a language that they understand. And if it is not available or the resources are not immediately available for written translation, that there is the opportunity for an interpreter to potentially provide sight translation of those documents to ensure that families are totally aware of all of the information that they are receiving on behalf of their child.
Where does funding for language access come from?
So funding for interpreting and translation services first and foremost must be, the provision of services and the commitment to equity and engagement and equitable engagement of families must be at the crux of the district or the school. To be able to know how important these services are for engaging all families and really determining how to allocate resources to make the language access services real for the school district.
That can come in a number of different ways. So a school system making a commitment to allocate some of their general funding for some of this work is a start. And then there are also other avenues through grant funding and federal funding. So Title I funding can be utilized to ensure interpreting services and also as part of ESA and Title I to ensure that families have access to information.
So Title I services can be utilized and there are also other specific grant funding streams through Title III, immigrant grants, and Title III funding when it's specific for the work of Title III. And then it's important that districts are creative around connecting with other sources in their community to think about how this funding can be a reality.
But fundamentally it's critical that the district is creating a situation in which interpreting and translation is central to their communications plan. Central to their family engagement plan and how they are adequately providing services to ensure that families can be engaged in all of what a school or school district has to offer.
What are some of the different interpretation services districts have available?
So, as we think about the most meaningful accessible options for interpreting services, truly the most meaningful is in person interpreting. And in person interpreting would involve an interpreter who has been trained specifically in educational interpreting. Who is aware of the code of ethics, who is aware of how those services should be provided in a wide variety of situations.
So in education, interpreting situations can vary from an IEP, special education meeting, to an administrative conference around expulsion. It can be a parent/teacher conference, it can be a workshop that's being held at the school for families. There's such a wide variety of opportunities to connect with families. And so, in thinking about the most meaningful options, those interpreters would literally come in and be able to provide the services.
Considering the virtual environment in which many of us find ourselves at this moment, of the pivot to virtual interpreting has been really important to be able to maintain that connection with families and be able to maintain that communication. So, using those in person interpreters now in a virtual environment, on various platforms, allows them to A, either provide consecutive interpreting within the platform or B, to provide simultaneous services.
So there are some platforms that support simultaneous services and there are other creative ways to continue to provide simultaneous services. For example, with external phone lines, for those families to be supported. Moving into the telephonic interpreting, telephonic interpreting can be meaningful as well. It is much less personal however, because you are literally making a phone call, either a third-party phone call to connect with the family to be able to communicate with them with an interpreter on the line.
Or in instances when there's a face to face opportunity to connect with the family the telephonic interpreting interpreter can be on the line live to be able to facilitate that communication. So definitely an opportunity to have accurate communication because those telephonic interpreters are trained. But it's a little bit less personal because the interpreter is on the line and not face to face.
There is definitely a broad spectrum of other services that are available. Those are definitely the top tier and are the most meaningful for families and also quite frankly are those that most align with what the, what the guidance is telling us to ensure that we're providing for families. As many people are aware, there are lots of free apps and texting services available.
What I would recommend is that when you are exploring different options for texting and communicating with families through those types of translation, communication methods, that you're really exploring what is their level of accuracy. We, as schools and school districts never want to affront families with incorrect and inaccurate translation.
That is really fundamental to this work is ensuring that the information that we're providing is accurate and that it is, it is vetted. So there are definitely some texting options out there and some apps that do provide oversight around the accuracy of the communication and messaging that's going to families so I would recommend that that be your priority as you're thinking about what types of services to implement.
Part III: Language Access for Multilingual Families
Are we welcoming families?
As school systems we often are communicating that we want parents are as our partners. We want to ensure we're creating spaces in which parents feel welcomed. So we have to make sure we're taking the steps for that to be a reality.
And when we speak to people in a language that they understand it really allows them to connect and feel that they are part of the community. And that is I think at the heart of this work is that we want people to be, to feel welcome, to feel engaged and to feel connected.
How are ELL families communicating?
So when we think about the best way to connect with families who are English learners, I think that one of the most important things to do is literally to find out what is the way that they most effectively communicate. Every family is going to be different and that when we think about different cultural groups, different cultural groups have different perspectives on communication.
So it's really important that we try and figure out what is the cultural, that deep culture around communication in that specific cultural group and what is most efficient for the family. How do we connect with that family? There are some families who prefer to receive phone calls. So utilization of a systemic phone out service with phone messaging may be the best way to connect messages to some families.
Some families do appreciate email, other families may feel less comfortable with an email interface. Some families may be very connected with some of the classroom messaging services that are directly connected to the virtual classrooms. So Google Classroom, or Class Dojo, some of those services can be used to connect messages to families. But I think what's most important is either creating that initial survey to understand from families what is the best way for us to connect with you?
And then knowing that communication is going to inherently be complex and you may be layering different methods of communication and connection in order to ensure that you're reaching all of these broad groups effectively.
Engaging families with social media
So families very often, in not all cases but many, have access to smartphones and other devices that allow them to connect with social media. So the more that a school or school system is able to offer opportunities to have that live, continuous feed of connection. So, social media outlets usually Facebook and sometimes Twitter, they offer an opportunity to connect directly with families, to get the messaging to families in a very instantaneous way.
And then also allows families to engage and interact with the information that you'd like to share with them. So that is definitely a recommended way to keep families engaged. It certainly isn't a way to engage in very specific communication with a family. But when there is very broad, systemic information or even school-based information social media can be very helpful. And most families we find are able to navigate that space and connect with us in that way.
What role does culture play in language access?
So in thinking about the importance of culture in language access, so in both interpreting and translation, language is not inextricable from culture and the critical role of an interpreter is to be able to bridge that connection and to understand when there's cultural nuance. So for example if a parent is engaged with a teacher in a parent/teacher conference and that parent may be from a system of education that's so different that the concept of a report card in the way that we understand a report card in the United States is not comparable.
So you know it's sometimes there are situations where if the staff member doesn't know that the parent is a little bit lost around the communication around the report card, that's where it becomes incumbent upon having an interpreter that really is knowledgeable around not necessarily the specific culture that the parent is from but understanding that there is this dissonance, this cultural dissonance around what is being understood.
So being, so having those strategies to be able to pause a meeting and ask for clarification on behalf of the parent in some instances when it's very clear that the parent does not know what's happening. And also you know being able to connect with language is one thing but knowing that you know we think about culture in so many different ways and culture of course is that top 10% of the iceberg but then there's so much deep culture that can often also resonate around emotion.
And when we think about some of the systems in education in the United States that those systems can often be very, very different from the systems of education in other countries and specifically sometimes the emotion that can be invoked around for example identification for special education services, that that can be something that an interpreter needs to be sensitive to as they are communicating information to ensure that the information is communicated in an accurate way but it's also communicated in a way that the family understand what is taking place.
Part IV: A Framework for Language Access
Language Access Framework: Hiring and Assessment
So as we're thinking about ensuring that interpreters are prepared to be able to provide services for families and services for schools and school districts, there is in a sense a professional community that's being developed. And I have created this framework called the professional language access community. Because we really want to focus on the professionalism of this field, specifically the field of interpreting and translation and education. So the components of that really focus on four areas.
The first is that the hiring and assessment practices are very specific and are essentially standardized. That hiring is not you know, you know this language come on and serve as an interpreter for us.
This is very specific around what are the qualifications that your school or school district needs to put in place to ensure that you are hiring people who can provide these services. As part of that practice, assessment becomes critical. So assessment of language ability, not solely language ability in the target language but a candidate's ability to go back to front in both languages.
To be able to communicate the entire message, to be able to navigate and circumlocute around vocabulary. And also an understanding of their judgement because judgment is incredibly critical in the field of interpretation and also translation. So those hiring and assessment practices are incredibly critical to build a team of qualified and competent individuals.
Language Access Framework: Building Investment
The second part of the framework is really around building investment. So building investment in the school, building investment in the school district, and that really means, it can mean a variety of things but really looking at what is your overarching guide for your interpreting services that is very specific to your school or school district. Do you have a handbook for your interpreters? Do you have a style guide for your translators?
What is available to ensure that they feel invested? Are there glossaries that support their work and that provide consistency across the board for the services that are being provided and the vocabulary that's being used. Vocabulary of course can be very nuanced and it's critical that districts are knowledge around the populations that they are serving and how to ensure that their glossaries and their consistency of language use is really focused on those target groups.
Language Access Framework: Professional Development
So the third component is building context. And building context essentially is focusing on what professional development is available to your interpreting and translation team to ensure that they have all of that background knowledge that they need to provide accurate services.
Professional development truly beings at the initiation of the hiring, that interpreters are receiving new interpreter training to understand more about the specificity of the school district, to understand about the procedures related to how they are providing services.
In addition it's highly recommended that the interpreting team has opportunities to engage in professional development around compliance once their meetings are moving to the level of compliance, interpreters need to know what that process entails and how they can most effectively provide services.
But then also really beginning to delve into professional development around special education. Special education in a lot of cases can account for over 50% of the services that are being provided in the school system for families. So it's imperative that interpreters have that background knowledge around the special education journey. They need to know each step of the way what this journey looks like for a family.
What types of meetings will families be engaging in? What do those meetings look like? And also being very familiar with the reports and the types of assessments that students are receiving. Often families are a part of the assessment process and also the assessment reporting process. So interpreters must be knowledgeable around those areas to have that background information to provide accurate interpreting services.
All types of special education meetings are incredibly unique and also carry with them very specific rules and regulations around timelines and around specific information that families must receive and also feedback that must come from families.
So it's really critical as interpreting teams are really being built, as the capacity for interpreting teams is being built for them to provide these services that they are constantly receiving professional development and are aware of what their responsibilities are and their role in supporting communication.
Language Access Framework: Leadership and Growth
And then the fourth is nurturing growth and that is around nurturing the leadership and growth of your team and to be able to bring that knowledge and information back to the greater team to build the capacity of all.
A team is always, should always be progressive, progressively learning more, progressively being offered opportunities to attend local and national conferences. There are so many opportunities out there to continue to grow, whether it's growth in simultaneous interpreting or whether it's growth around specific translation strategies for the Arabic language or for the French language.
And then not only offering the team opportunities to grow beyond the school or school district but then also really creating spaces for the team members to come back and share what they've learned with their colleagues and building this professional community. As interpreters and translators, the team has a commitment to supporting each other.
To reading and staying abreast of what's current with specifically the American Translator's Association and other local organizations that focus on interpreting and translation and then also with some specificity around interpreting and translation in education. Because of course the medical field and the legal field have long had very specific qualifications around interpreting services.
But education is very unique and there are so many aspects of interpreting that are provided through the educational realm. So ensuring that this language access community is empowered with knowledge and also that they have the capacity to provide accurate services and that they are in a place to continue to grow and become better at what they do and continue to be at the forefront of the critical knowledge needed for provision of language access services.
Part V: Language Access During the COVID-10 Pandemic
Ensuring families have language access during the pandemic
I think also in this virtual environment it has really become very apparent how important language access is. You know I think that we know that, we know that language access is important in the school setting but when you can't be face to face with someone, all of the gestures and the nuanced body language communication is suddenly non-existent and you really have to rely on language and really being able to connect language with families.
And also I think that it has really put an essential level, a higher level of value on how much we're communicating with families, that that should always be the norm that we are making every effort to communicate with families regularly and intentionally around their students and around programming and schools and school districts.
So I think that this, you know as it has provided challenges it has also really been a huge opportunity for us to reevaluate practices across the nation for us to be the best providers of this bridge to communication for families that we can provide.
Resilience of interpreting staff during the COVID-19 pandemic
So I think that this pandemic has really brought about a lot of realizations. I think the first for me is it has really demonstrated a resilience in our staff in that the interpreting and translation field has very much been built on in person and face to face communication so making this immediate pivot to everything being virtual or everything being by phone has been definitely a change in the way that interpreters and translators have provided services, specifically the interpreting teams.
But I think knowing the resilience and willingness to learn and pivot to ensure that families are receiving this communication and families have access to meetings and communication with teachers, which has been really important of course right in this virtual environment because there is so much that is new and so much to learn and so much to ensure that families are aware of in order to adequately support their children. So that has really been something that has been in the forefront for me.
Adopting new technology for language access
one of the things that I had really wanted to do for a very long time in the professional realm of interpreting and translation was specifically being able to start to do more virtual remote interpreting services in our school district.
So it kind of you know put us full force into something we had been exploring and you know made it reality. It meant that there was a huge learning curve, it meant that there was a tremendous need to survey staff members within the interpreting and translation team to ensure that A, they had access to technology, B, they knew how to utilize that technology.
And C, that they were ready to jump into these virtual platforms which lend their own you know, level of nuance and being able to be connected and ensure that services are being provided appropriately and efficiently.
Why we need grace and empathy during the COVID-19 pandemic
at this time I think that all of us in education and this is everyone from the building maintenance staff to teachers to administrators and central office staff, everyone is working probably harder and more hours than they ever have in their life. And this is all while still trying to create a balance with the personal life. And I think the most important word that really comes to mind around this entire situation is to continue to think about grace and offer each other grace because you know we never know the situations that the person that we're interacting with is dealing with.
Whether it's the family that we're providing interpreting services for or whether it's the teacher that we're trying to connect a family to. Knowing that grace has to be at the center of how we operate, even though the workload is tremendous, that empathy and grace really are what is going to get us through this. And that's also, if not most importantly, grace for yourself.
Part VI: A Career Devoted to Building Bridges
Getting Started as an ELL Educator
When I was a college student I really had an interest in working with students that were, who were in the local community. And it happened that in the local community in which I was in North Carolina there was a large migrant family, migrant population, and that was really I think the start of me really starting the develop an understanding of the immigrant story.
Specifically with this group of students who were part of families who had been, who were migrant families. And so that really led me down a path, at first not really around English learners, I was a Spanish teacher, I began my career as a Spanish teacher at the middle school level. And then also was a Spanish teacher at the alternative high school level.
And then had, did a lot of work in curriculum, curriculum writing and then leading instructional curriculum for world languages, so it kind of led me down this path around the world languages and it wasn't really until I became a school administrator that it kind of, front and center had me to really begin to understand what the, the needs were around our English learners.
And really understanding that interpreting and translation was, had to be that bridge for families. And that transitioned me to the role in which I have now which is uber-focused on ensuring that that connection is available across a school district and encouraging others that are in different walks in their journey to ensuring language access services are available for families, knowing how it changes the game for how families really can be involved.
Attending class with Dr. Maya Angelou
So I was very, very lucky to be able to attend Wake Forest University and one of my professors was Dr. Maya Angelou and one of the consistent messages that we heard almost every day in class was that we are more alike than we are different. And in her words, “We are more alike than we are different, my friends.” And I think that the work around bringing communities together and bridging communities really speaks to that.
That we have so much more in common than we have differences. And if we can start to focus on those commonalities and that is, that is what inherently is able to help us create community. And communities can do amazing things when we're all on the same page. So bridging that language difference is a really important part of helping to demonstrate the incredible number of things that we have in common.
Perspectives on being a Black professional in the ELL world
As a black professional in the world of English learner education and language access, I feel that this is an opportunity to really be a bridge, to serve as a bridge to communities.
I am grateful to be able to do this work, I am grateful to be able to help other districts to be able to build their capacity to be able to do this work. And I think that each and every one of us who is a part of this work brings a unique perspective and that is what makes this so valuable is to be able to bring our voices together, to be able to provide the best services that we can and the best environment to ensure that every family has an opportunity to engage. That no family feels that they're in the periphery of their children's educational journey.
There is really an uncanny ability for people to know your heart. And when you're doing work for the right reasons it really, it really shows.
Jennifer Love, Ed.D., is Supervisor of Language Access and Engagement in Prince George's County Public Schools, Maryland. She has dedicated her career to education and engagement equity, elevating effective practices in language access and English learner family engagement. Dr. Love is also the former president of the Maryland ELL Family Involvement Network (MELLFIN). She has also developed a language access framework to support schools and school districts in creating meaningful and sustainable language access programs. Dr. Love holds a Doctorate of Education in Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Educational Leadership in Special Education, earned as part of a grant cohort of the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education. She also has a Master's degree in Foreign Language Education from Wake Forest University, where she also obtained her Bachelor's degree in Elementary Education and Spanish.