Somerville School Committee meetings have translators

Somerville School Committee meetings have translators

But there’s new choices for residents looking at the link menu. They are directed to choose between four languages.

There’s a new process for people attending the Somerville School Committee since Andre Green took over as chair earlier this year. Yes, it’s still virtual and attendees need to register beforehand to get an Internet link, and public comment is still limited to 3 minutes or less.

And before the presentations begin, Green takes a minute to introduce three people: the district employees who will be translating the meeting as it occurs into Portuguese, Spanish and Haitian Creole. He admonishes speakers to talk slowly and to avoid acronyms if possible, to ease the work of the interpreters.

“It made sense to have translation,” Green said. “We have to find ways to engage better with non-native English-speaking families.”

The district made a huge investment in language services this year, extending the part-time family liaison positions to full time at the start of the summer. The liaisons, working through the Somerville Family Learning Collaborative, were key employees who helped keep non-English speaking families connected to the district, helping with food distribution and filling other family needs.

The city also sent about two dozen multi-lingual district employees to a seven-week workshop in translation offered by UMass Amherst at the start of the year.

Regina Galasso, director of the UMass Translation Center and a professor in the Spanish and Portuguese program, praised the city’s commitment to translation and interpretation services.

She oversees the program at UMass Amherst, a program that has already graduated students from several Massachusetts districts including: Holyoke, Amherst, Salem and now Somerville. About 300 multi-lingual schools’ employees have graduated from the course.

“Somerville students were special; they stood out for their dedication, near perfect attendance and hard work,” Galasso said. She praised the district for the decision to provide translation during committee meetings, recognizing that it is a huge investment in translation services. She does not know of any other School Committee that provides a similar service.

“When (mono-lingual) people are made aware of the other languages in the community, it can shift their perception of their schools and make them aware of the language needs of everyone in the school community,” Galasso said. Green believes the pilot simultaneous translation program is the correct way to move forward and to make meetings more accessible to city residents, especially residents who may have felt marginalized in the past when all committee meetings were conducted in English.

“It’s expensive,” Green said, “but it’s worth having.” Maura Quiroz coordinates the translators for the district. She currently has two interpreters for each language work the meetings as simultaneous interpretation can be very tiring.

“Unlike consecutive interpretation (the most common practice in our schools) where the presenter speaks and then the interpreter translates, simultaneous interpretation requires someone to translate into a different language as the speaker is speaking,” Quiroz explained. Each interpreter works for 20-to-30 minutes, switching off at various times during the meetings.

“We are always looking for ways to expand and continue improving our services to make sure that all families have access to information and resources and are part of the decision-making process,” Quiroz said. “We were excited to be able to expand our supports by providing simultaneous interpretation in our three target languages.” Green said Somerville’s program still has bugs to work out: “we’re still tweaking things.” Already the committee shifted the agenda; presentations made to the committee have moved up to the opening time slot while public comment has been shifted toward the end of the meetings.

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