No speak-a Español.
That was a refrain Latina activist Marta Guembes heard in many forms of broken Spanish as she embarked last month on a one-woman undercover investigation of Portland Public Schools.
Guembes, perhaps best known for advocating the renaming of 39th Avenue for César E. Chávez, wanted to know how different schools in Oregon's largest school district would respond if she called their main offices and pretended to speak only Spanish.
With more than 4,000 of PPS's 47,000 students speaking Spanish at home, it's a call schools get perhaps hundreds of times a day.
Guembes' stealth investigation over a two-day period in April of the district's system for helping immigrant parents wasn't the result of a whim. The state Department of Education found in 2009 that PPS wasn't doing everything state and federal law required to communicate with non-English-speaking parents.
As a result of such problems as PPS's failure to send home materials consistently to parents in their native languages, the state Department of Education decided at the start of this school year to withhold more than $600,000 in federal funds from the district. This spring, state regulators determined PPS deserved to get that money back because it had trained principals how to get access to translators, among other improvements.
But Guembes, who has a grandson in Portland schools, didn't believe PPS's work was done. And what Guembes found was disheartening, though not entirely surprising. What she discovered in her calls to about 30 of the district's 85 schools was that the schools had no system in place for handling non-English telephone calls that parents might make to register their children for class, report an absence or get help from a child's teacher.
When Guembes called each school, she would say, "¿Cuando es la junta de padres?" in Spanish, which means, "When is the next parent meeting?" A review of the tapes Guembes made reveals the following responses:
At Rosa Parks Elementary, a receptionist connected Guembes to an 8-year-old student named Jose who says he got pulled from class to talk to her. The receptionist asked the boy to act as an interpreter, though he barely spoke Spanish himself.
At West Sylvan Middle School, the receptionist transferred Guembes to a woman who worked in the cafeteria. The woman told Guembes she had only two minutes until the breakfast rush started and that she couldn't help Guembes until her break. At Abernethy Elementary School, another student's Spanish-speaking mother, who happened to be in the office, tried to translate. At Wilson High School, a receptionist hung up on Guembes. At Laurelhurst K-8 School the person who answered the phone told her, "You should speak English." For the record, the percentage of Spanish-speaking students at those five schools ranges from less than 1 percent at West Sylvan to 15 percent at Rosa Parks.
In several cases, receptionists put Guembes on hold for several minutes, which might have discouraged a parent. In no case did a receptionist seem to follow a protocol. The one consistency in all of Guembes' interactions with receptionists was the hold music.
That doesn't surprise other advocates for Portland's Latino population, which has grown to about 7 percent.
"The lack of bilingual staff is a frustration we've consistently heard from both Spanish-speaking parents and the schools that we work with," says Carmen Rubio, executive director of Latino Network, a Portland-based nonprofit.
Guembes, a 48-year-old social services case worker, used her own time to record the telephone conversations (which is legal under Oregon law).
Her findings angered her because they showed numerous ways in which the school district was perhaps missing opportunities to assist immigrant and refugee parents.
She says she doesn't expect every receptionist to speak fluent Spanish or any of the estimated 72 languages spoken by PPS students and their parents. What she wants are guidelines for schools' administrative staffs to quickly and politely get callers to someone who can understand the language.
"There should be a system," Guembes says. "I cannot even imagine Chinese, Vietnamese or Somali. This is not only about Spanish-speaking parents. It's about all parents."
Increasingly, receptionists must act as de facto babysitters, bookkeepers, guidance counselors and hall monitors for kids. One school secretary couldn't recall any specific training for dealing with parents who don't speak English.
"We sort of just do it," says Lidia Lopez, a school secretary at Harrison Park K-8.
Earlier this month, Guembes shared notes from her phone conversations with district administrators. They were both dismayed by the results and angered by Guembes' journalistic tactics. One administrator told her the investigation was inappropriate. But they have vowed to make changes.
"The district was rather surprised," says Carolyn Leonard, a longtime administrator with PPS. "They thought we were doing better."
The district says it's trying to figure out how to respond.
"It's asking a lot for a school secretary to speak all of the languages," says district spokesman Matt Shelby, adding that there is some one-on-one training for new school secretaries in this area. "We have people who speak those languages.… We haven't solved it."
And to those who say the non-English-speaking parent should be the one who's responsible for finding an English-speaking friend or relative on their end of the line, Guembes says schools should be respectful of everyone's culture and at the very least not be rude on the phone.
"That's a fair question," Guembes says. "To me that's not the point."
To listen to audio of Guembes' call to Rosa Parks Elementary, go to wweek.com/PPS_undercover. To download a transcript of the phone conversation, get the PDF