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In need of interpreters, OPS looks to its own bilingual students

In need of interpreters, OPS looks to its own bilingual students

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Since March of 2020 there have been three COVID-19 relief bills passed by Congress and signed into law. Thanks to those bills, OPS will be receiving $303.7 million.

For most of their lives, three Omaha Public Schools seniors have stepped into the role of interpreter when someone needed their help.

Hser Kmwe, who speaks Karen, has helped translate in the grocery store after seeing someone struggle to communicate. She often translates for her parents. The Karen language is spoken widely in parts of Thailand and Myanmar.

Karen Soto translates for her Spanish-speaking family and volunteers to help other parents.

Families in Pu Meh’s community often offer to pay her for her help, but the Karenni-speaking senior at Northwest High School has always refused payment.

“I’m just helping people because even my parents struggled when they first came to America, and I didn’t know English, so other people helped my parents,” she said. “I want to give back to them through helping other families.”

Facing staff shortages, OPS has turned to these bilingual students and others to interpret when families talk with teachers during report card conferences.

OPS has some full-time bilingual liaisons, but students and their families speak more than 100 different languages. And more than 18,000 students have received English Learner services at some time while at OPS.

Lisa Utterback, chief student and community services officer for OPS, said the district has about 20 students contracted as interpreters to help out at parent-teacher conferences. The students are paid $18 an hour for the work.

It is the second time this year that OPS has looked to its student body to help deal with the staffing shortages that school districts and other employers have been experiencing locally and nationally.

This summer, OPS hired high school students to mentor and tutor elementary students during Next Level Learning, the district’s summer school program.

“This is the first time that we’ve really looked at what our students can bring to the table as paid employees of the Omaha Public Schools,” Utterback said of the recent student hires.

Utterback said the student interpreters are going through the same application process and training as non-student contracted interpreters.

To protect the privacy of their classmates and peers, the high school interpreters are helping only with middle and elementary school conferences.

Utterback said communication between teachers and families is vital for them to work together to identify problems, provide any necessary help and celebrate students’ successes.

The interpreters are getting professional experience, Utterback said, but they’re also bringing their experiences to the conversations.

For Pu Meh, that was understanding that families she was helping wouldn’t understand words such as “science.”

“When we went to school in our country, we didn’t have science, so we did not know how to interpret science,” she said. “I would tell them it’s where they experience stuff because in science I just think of experimenting.”

Hser Kmwe, a senior at Northwest, said even if the words were available in Karen, she made sure that the parents understood what their student was doing and learning in school.

When she was in elementary school, a high schooler interpreted for her parents.

“I always kind of looked up to her at that time because I didn’t really understand English,” she said.

Hser Kmwe promised herself that she would do the same thing when she got older.

For Pu Meh, she’s providing a service that wasn’t available to her own parents.

“I wish we were around to help my parents in elementary when they needed help translating or interpreting because they had Burmese interpreters, but my parents didn’t really understand Burmese,” she said. “They spoke a little but not too much. They said they didn’t really understand it, and so I couldn’t quite help them with that because I was still young.”

Pu Meh helped her family some in elementary school until OPS hired a bilingual liaison when she was in middle school.

Soto said some interpreters were available at her school conferences, but most of the time, she was the one to translate for her parents.

Helping families understand the words they don’t know in English brought Pu Meh joy. Other families didn’t know English at all. Without her help, she said, many of the families would not understand what their kids were doing at school or what their grades were, or be able to ask the teachers questions.

All three seniors hope to continue to use their language skills in their future careers. Soto and Hser Kmwe want to enter the medical field. Soto wants to be an OB-GYN, and Hser Kmwe wants to be a nurse.

Pu Meh wants to become a teacher and return to OPS to teach students and translate at the same time.

Utterback said OPS will likely continue to tap into the talent within the district and provide similar opportunities to OPS students.

“Our young people that have a skill that we need are being trained and paid according to the skill that they’re providing,” she said. “They’re getting experience. And the service that our teachers and families are getting, I believe, is second to none.”


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Emily covers K-12 education, including Omaha Public Schools. Previously, Emily covered local government and the Nebraska Legislature for The World-Herald. Follow her on Twitter @emily_nitcher. Phone: 402-444-1192.

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