Language Creates Belonging: Get to Know Navigator Ileana Ortiz

For Ileana Ortiz, navigating for Spanish-speaking New Orleans families is personal: She sees her own parents and grandparents in every family she works with.

Ileana Ortiz is a native of Miami, a former AmeriCorps Fellow, and a long-time theater and arts buff. For many years, she has supported Spanish-speaking families and young people in New Orleans to navigate the criminal justice and education systems. We sat down to learn more about who she is and what she’d love to see schools do differently to serve families that speak a language other than English.

Hello! So, tell us a little bit about your path to EdNavigator.

Prior to working at EdNavigator, I worked at the public defender's office here in New Orleans. I was a client advocate in the municipal court, and I would help with bond mitigation. I saw a lot of young people being arrested and held on a bond that the family couldn't pay. So sometimes I was reaching out to schools or teachers to write letters to the court to vouch for those kids. Sometimes I was trying to get alternatives to incarceration, like enrolling them in rehab.

That was the first workplace where I really got to use my Spanish. It was definitely needed because there were so many people coming through the system, and I would see how scared they looked because nobody had spoken to them in their own language for who knows how many hours. There would be this sigh of relief when somebody would finally break down what was happening in their own language.

In New Orleans, our district attorney prosecutes a lot of 17-year-olds as adults. He doesn't have to. A lot of other parishes and districts don't, especially for petty crime. So a petty theft, or they had a joint on them, or things like that. I was seeing so many kids come through the system for stuff like this, and for incidents in schools that were getting escalated. And I started to wonder if there was something I could get involved with on the front end instead of the back end. That’s when I heard about EdNavigator.

My family really loves my job. They’re from Cuba. Spanish was my first language. The work that I do is deeply personal to me because I see my parents and my grandparents in every family I work with.

Have you talked to your grandparents about how they navigated the schools here for their own families?

My grandfather told me how much they just really trusted teachers. And their community. If a friend was like, "This school is good," they trusted that. I think we see that with the families we work with, too. There's a lot of trust in people who share their experiences. Or they really trust the teacher—teachers are on a pedestal. Sometimes I have to tell my families, "Don't trust the teacher blindly. It’s okay to ask questions. It’s okay to get clarification. Nobody is perfect."

What are some of the big gaps you see in how schools serve families that speak a language other than English?

Clearly, a big one is getting materials in the language that the family speaks. A lot of things are just not translated. Report cards, notes on report cards, field trip forms. I have had to fight hard with multiple parishes to get IEPs translated—and IEPs are legally binding contracts that parents have to sign.

What rights do parents have to translation by law?

Per the Department of Justice and the Department of Education, “vital documents” have to be translated. This includes a lot of stuff: the handbook, report cards, anything relating to special education. I can't tell you how many behavioral reports I've seen come home in English. So the parent has no idea that their kid's acting up. Or the parent has no idea their kid is failing because the report card is in English. These are very basic, minimum things.

Sometimes I have to go into school with a bulletin from the Department of Justice to push schools to do the translation. I shouldn't have to go into schools with legal documents to get them to do what is right. Here’s the thing: English-speaking parents are able to keep track of how their kids are doing in school just because they have the language. I'm not asking for anything extra. I'm just trying to get my families on equal footing.

What about in-person interpretation in school?

Yes, and that is often missing. Often, there will be people in the room to “interpret” who probably did not pass level two Spanish in school. I've been in IEP meetings where the interpretation was so weak that they were passing on inaccurate information to the family. It’s unreal.

Often, children are asked to interpret meetings for their families. My parents talk about having to do that in school for their parents back in the day. I even remember having to interpret for my grandparents sometimes, if my parents were away for work or something. That is not legal, either. A child is not a qualified interpreter.

We also see a severe lack of bilingual social workers and psychologists. So kids who would benefit from seeing some kind of counselor through the school don’t have access, whereas other kids have the ability to get the support they need much more often. So there's a really immense need for that.

Are there any schools or parishes that should serve as exemplars of how to do this really well?

There are some schools that are doing a better job than others. Terrytown Elementary in particular does a really good job. I think a lot of that comes from their school leader, who is bilingual. I think, again, the benefit of hiring people with lived experience means that these things are more front of mind. I'm part of a working group here in New Orleans of educators and education-related nonprofits that support immigrant students, and there are quite a few charter networks and schools represented in that group. There’s a lot of sharing of resources and best practices. Some of the schools are further along than others, but I make mental notes of every single school that is at least making an effort to do better, and I’m more likely to recommend those schools to families.

What difference do you think these efforts make for kids?

When a child’s home language is respected at school, it creates a feeling of belonging, and I think that goes a long way. We know how much better school goes for children when their parent or guardian is able to be an active part of it. So when parents are able to actually read what's coming home to them or have conversations with teachers, or when they feel comfortable going to school—when they don't have to sit for 45 minutes in the office waiting for the Spanish teacher to have five minutes to translate what's going on—that goes a long way. Especially right now, when immigrant families can feel so unwelcome in this country. So I try to really go above and beyond to support my families, because I know how much that feeling of belonging matters.

What's on your wishlist for every school?

Definitely more people in the front office that speak multiple languages. It's not just Spanish, of course. I always default to Spanish because that's most of the families I work with, but in New Orleans, for example, we have a really robust Vietnamese community. So having people on staff that speak the primary languages of your school community goes a long way. There’s something really powerful in hiring folks from the community that you are serving. And especially when it comes to immigrants or refugees, not only shared language but also that shared experience is really meaningful.

Translation of the materials has to be a must. You're sending home a field trip form, your handbook, your enrollment paperwork—everything. Nothing should go home that isn't translated because again, when it's not, you’re putting some families on unequal footing.

Finally, I would love to see schools have more access to mental health professionals that speak multiple languages. Sometimes trauma is preventing students from doing well or from graduating. Access to support services can be life-changing.

At the end of the day, this is about respecting families. A lot of these families have sacrificed so much so their kids could have a shot at an education here. You have families that have left everything behind, you have families that have experienced unspeakable tragedies and traumas, and a lot of that is in the name of trying to get a better life for their kids through the opportunity of education. When we’re fighting for the rights of families that speak another language, we're not trying to have a gotcha moment with the school. We just want our families to have the same opportunities for their children.

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