CT proposal offers 'bill of rights' for English language learners' parents

The Connecticut State Capitol, in Hartford, Conn. Jan 24, 2023.

The Connecticut State Capitol, in Hartford, Conn. Jan 24, 2023.

Ned Gerard/Hearst Connecticut Media

For one Bridgeport mother, it took three weeks to learn that her son could register for school without disclosing their immigration status. The school district didn’t provide her any resources in her native language — Spanish — to help with the process, she said.

One Hartford mother said she needs to use her phone to translate every paper and form that’s sent home from her son’s school. She told her son to explain to his sixth-grade teacher that the forms would be returned late because she didn’t have help to understand what the documents meant. His teacher told him that was just an excuse, she said.

The two sentiments, shared at a press conference at the Capitol on Wednesday afternoon, illustrated what lawmakers called an ongoing struggle for parents who don’t speak English to actively participate in their children’s education.

“It never ceases to amaze me how many bills we pass every year that I feel should have been done decades ago and how many obstacles we have faced to deliver basic human rights,” said Rep. Antonio Felipe, one of the lawmakers who introduced House Bill 6211, which advocates for a statewide “bill of rights” for parents of English language learners.

“We stand here today because it’s critically important that people can learn in their own languages, people can be involved in the outcomes of students and their children for years to come, and that has not been the case,” Felipe said. “And as I said, for decades, it should have been.”

Felipe said his district, in Bridgeport, has made local efforts, but it’s time to ensure the initiative is consistent statewide.

The bill of rights would include that parents of an ELL student have the right for information to be communicated in the language instruction program that their child is taught in, in addition to the presentation and clarification of 17 rights, including that children may receive a free public education regardless of immigration status and that parents are able to request a qualified translator for “critical interactions.”

Rep. Juan R. Candelaria, D-New Haven, who introduced the bill with Felipe, said he was an ELL student over four decades ago and was lucky that his mother was able to advocate for him, as well as knowing how to navigate the school system to ensure he got the education he needed.

However, he noted, many students aren’t as lucky.

“I hear parents stories about … ‘Unfortunately, there’s multiple models out there for ELL, but none of them have been discussed with me, or my child. Which one is best for my child?’” Candelaria said. “There needs to be a dialogue. Not one individual knows what fits a student with multiple learning abilities, and each model may work, but we have to engage the parent. They need to be part of the process.”

The process begins with making translators more readily available, according to several community organizations such as Make the Road Connecticut, ConnCAN, United Parents and Students and the Center for Children’s Advocacy that attended the press conference.

“I would often see many of my friends at school trying to translate for their parents, as well as the complications and barriers it created for them. This was decades ago, and it’s the same today in 2023 … That still persists among many students and their families,” said Roman Garcia, a life-long Connecticut resident, father and spokesperson for ConnCAN.

Garcia urged the state to “do better” as the number of English language learners surpasses 45,000 students and continues to grow.

“It is crucial that English language learners and their parents are given the same rights and opportunities as that of others,” Garcia said. “No student, no child, no parent should ever be treated differently simply because English is not their first language. ‘Communication is key’ is a statement I would always hear. With that being said, how can parents play an active role in their child’s education if there’s a language barrier? How can students participate in extracurricular activities at school if there’s no one to communicate with or translate for them in a language they can understand and speak?”

Currently, local school districts are mandated by the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and state statutes to provide non-English speaking students equal opportunity access to education, Stacey Violante Cote, an attorney at the Center for Children’s Advocacy, said.

“In order to properly serve all students, effective techniques and curriculum for English language learners are essential. Federal law requires that English language learner students be empowered to participate meaningfully and equally in educational programs,” Violante Cote said.

“We have a list of explicit rights that must be included so as to ensure educational access and programming for ELLs and their parents,” Violante Cote said. “Parents play a fundamental role in their child’s education. They must have meaningful access to their child’s education, otherwise students cannot progress and thrive.”