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Student Interpreters Bridge Language Gaps for Parents, Teachers at Back-to-School Nights

For third year, teams of high school kids fan out to ensure Santa Barbara Unified School District programs have a smooth translation

Students in bright blue shirts have been a conspicuous presence at the Santa Barbara Unified School District’s back-to-school nights. But they're not there to lend academic authenticity to the classroom atmosphere; they're all part of the district's interpreter program.

For the second year in a row, Spanish-speaking high school student volunteers are helping interpret for parents and teachers at all SBUSD campuses. Two of the high schools have been using similar programs of their own in the past, but most schools only had interpreters present for events like parent assemblies. 

The teachers and parents are extremely appreciative of the help, said Dos Pueblos High School senior Mitzy Perez, who has been volunteering as an interpreter for four years.

“It’s definitely very rewarding at the end,” she said. “All the parents are like, ‘Thank you so much, it’s the first time I actually listened to everything.’

"Just being there for them feels so great.”

Perez had interpreted for her parents, who are very involved with her school, but not for strangers — until this program. 

“I remember growing up, my parents never completely understood what people were saying because of the language barrier,” she said.

Students usually are assigned to a teacher’s classroom, said Teresa Lewis, who coordinates San Marcos High School’s students in the program. She helps recruit students and also does simultaneous interpretation for the larger auditorium meetings at several back-to-school nights.

Teresa Lewis of San Marcos High School checks her roster of La Cumbre Junior High teachers as she assigns student interpreters to their classrooms. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)
Teresa Lewis of San Marcos High School checks her roster of La Cumbre Junior High teachers as she assigns student interpreters to their classrooms. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

“I am a good motivator, I think,” Lewis said. “When you’re doing things from the heart, it doesn’t matter if you are not a perfect speaker. What matters is you’re willing.”

More than 200 students from all the high schools — Dos Pueblos, San Marcos, Santa Barbara High, Alta Vista Alternative High School and La Cuesta Continuation High School — were given a few days of training sponsored by the district, Just Communities and Padres Unidos.

The training helped students memorize translations of some educational words, and taught them not to stumble on an unfamiliar word or phrase, but to convey the larger idea, Perez said.

“We would practice with partners, saying what we did over the summer, and in two minutes, the partner would have to say what the other person said, but in Spanish," she explained.

The program also has the groups to thank for transportation, which picked up students from their home schools and took them to the back-to-school sites, Lewis said.

“I feel very proud of what the students are willing to do and also need to thank the parents who are allowing them to go with them and participate in this school event,” she said.

The program’s had a positive reception so far and the district has suggested that interpreters may be used for future school events, and not just back-to-school nights.

“So far all the teachers have really been liking this idea, and they’re willing to slow down or stop while I am interpreting,” Perez said.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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