SANDY SPRINGS - A mother and daughter listen to Maria Guerra translate an assignment for her other daughter during a parents meeting at High Point Elementary School in Sandy Springs. More than two dozen Spanish-speaking student interpreters from Riverwood High School help translate for non-English-speaking parents at Fulton County Schools events like PTA meetings, parent-teacher conferences and other activities. AJC file photo.

Melting-pot effect means Gwinnett schools need more interpreters

Gwinnett County school board members are scheduled to vote Thursday evening on a plan that will allow the district to triple its spending, to as much as $1.5 million this school year, on interpretation services because of the increasing number of students and parents who don’t speak English as their primary language.

Gwinnett officials stressed that $1.5 million is a cushion in case even more interpretation services are needed than they anticipate. Gwinnett projects it will spend $636,000 this school year and said any unspent funds would be returned to the general budget.

“We want to make sure we have the funds if we need them,” explained district spokeswoman Sloan Roach.

Gwinnett, the state’s largest school district, has become a magnet for immigrants in recent decades. More than 100 languages are spoken by Gwinnett students, officials say. The district has had lessons for teachers to learn basic Spanish to better communicate with students and parents. About one in six Gwinnett students are classified as having Limited English Proficiency, according to state statistics, a higher rate than any school district in metro Atlanta.

Gwinnett hires several companies for interpreters for parent-teacher conferences, schoolwide curriculum nights, registering students, disciplinary hearings, area school board meetings, parent surveys and other purposes.

A decade ago, about 29 percent of Gwinnett students spoke a language other than English at home. Today, it’s 37 percent, district officials say.

“Our demand has increased significantly, especially with our Spanish interpreters,” Alicia McCartney, director of Gwinnett’s International Newcomer Center, wrote in an email last month to Gwinnett officials.

In 2000, President Bill Clinton signed an executive order requiring federal agencies to better serve individuals and families who don’t speak English or do so poorly. Gwinnett officials say they are trying to beef up the services after the federal government issued new guidance in 2011 for such services for parents who speak little or no English.

Steve Ramey, a Gwinnett-based tea party activist who is critical of state efforts to curb illegal immigration, does not believe the school district should use any money from its budget for interpreters. He suggested Gwinnett charge parents a fee to offset interpretation costs.

“The taxpayers should not be on the hook for any of this stuff,” said Ramey, co-chairman of the United Tea Party of Georgia, which claims about 3,000 members.

There is no precise count of illegal immigrants in the state or how many of their children attend public schools. State education department rules prohibit school officials from inquiring about the immigration status of students. Those rules are in line with a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that school districts must educate all children regardless of their immigration status.

Other school districts in the Atlanta region face similar challenges. DeKalb County, for example, sought to improve its registration process for international students this school year after problems the year before. About one-fifth of DeKalb students are classified as international, and the district has 12 interpreters at its International Welcome Center.

About 2,100 Atlanta Public Schools students were served by the English to Speakers of Other Languages program at the end of the last school year, up from 1,500 in 2010, district officials said. APS said it pays for translation services as needed and when vendors are available.