SCHOOLS WITH TRANSLATORS
* Bess T. Shepherd Elementary
* Red Bank Elementary
* McBrien Elementary
* East Side Elementary*
* Dupont Elementary
* Spring Creek Elementary
* East Brainerd Elementary
* Has the only full-time translator
Source: Hamilton County Department of Education
Here are some of the languages spoken in Hamilton County schools
* Spanish, Arabic, Bosnian, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Urdu, Croatian, Japanese, Italian, Ukrainian, Creole, Vietnamese, Filipino, French
Translator Paula Maldonado speaks English and Spanish, but she’s often asked to take a stab at Arabic or Somali.
Her colleagues at East Side Elementary School know that anyone who calls the school with an accent is forwarded to Ms. Maldonado’s phone.
“So, I’m like, OK, ‘Hola?’” she said, chuckling. “Sometimes I just try talking really slow.”
Ms. Maldonado, one of four translators in Hamilton County schools, began working full time this year at East Side after sharing her time last year with Bess T. Shepherd Elementary. All four employees translate Spanish only, and three still split their time between two schools.
Translators such as Ms. Maldonado are called on to help Spanish-speaking parents understand their children’s homework, to facilitate parent-teacher conferences and to call Spanish-speaking households when a child misses school. They serve as a liaison among students, teachers and parents who don’t speak the same language.
“Parents are grateful and comfortable coming in the school because they have someone who understands them,” she said. “They have your number, and you’re their salvation.”
Maudilia Jacobo, a native of Guatemala, came to East Side on a recent morning to have Ms. Maldonado explain a fire prevention worksheet her kindergarten son, Kevin, had to complete for class. The help she receives at East Side is crucial, she said.
“I have a lot of papers I don’t understand,” she said in Spanish.
Staff Photo by Patrick Smith
East Side Elementary School translator Paula Maldanado, right, helps translate a student worksheet for Maudilia Jacobo, left, and Flora Ramirez on Thursday. Ms. Maldanado works full-time to help non-English speaking parents and students navigate daily school life.
In recent years, administrators in the school system’s English Language Learner department have added translators, due mostly to the increase in the district’s Hispanic population.
In 2000, there were a little more than 200 students enrolled in the program, according to Sabrina Walton who took over the department that year. Today, there are 905 ELL students, 75 percent of whom speak Spanish, and another 248 who have exited the program but still must be monitored, she said.
Because of the growth, the department adds staff every year, and Ms. Walton said it is possible more would be hired in the future.
“As our program grows and needs become greater, we certainly want to be able to add (translators),” she said. “And as our Latino population grows, it becomes imperative that we hire more staff that is bilingual.”
But some ELL staff say the added manpower still is not enough. Marisol Jimenez, lead ELL teacher at East Side, said having Ms. Maldonado at her school full time has been a huge help, but other schools continue to struggle.
Every school with at least 20 students who speak another language should have a translator, she said, but that isn’t the case. Of the 26 schools in Hamilton County with at least one ELL teacher, seven of them have a translator, most of them part time.
“The key to success is communication,” Ms. Jimenez said. “You have to learn how to compensate for the lack of a translator.”
Because ELL teachers are not required to speak another language, the translators also serve as teaching aides in the schools where they work, administrators say.
When Angel Mejias is finished translating for the line of parents waiting outside McBrien Elementary each morning, he begins helping individual students with their work. To help them learn, he tries to speak only in English, but he said he reverts to Spanish for more difficult concepts.
“The school has an (English as a second language) teacher, but they still need some help. I sometimes bring students to my classroom to help them learn colors, numbers, the alphabet,” he said.
Mr. Mejias splits his time between McBrien and Bess T. Shepherd elementary schools, and he, too, thinks there’s a need for more translators.
“We definitely need one in each school, especially the ones with an ESL program,” he said.
Kelli Gauthier covers K-12 education in Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She started at the paper as an intern in 2006, crisscrossing the region writing feature stories from Pikeville, Tenn., to Lafayette, Ga. She also covered crime and courts before taking over the education beat in 2007. A native of Frederick, Md., Kelli came south to attend Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. Before newspapers, ...