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At P.S. 111, call for public-private alliance yields translation help

As the neighborhood around her school transformed into a cultural melting pot, Principal Irma Medina sensed that the city education department’s translation services wouldn’t be adequate to break through language barriers for new parents.

By 2010, over 40 languages were represented at P.S. 111 in Hell’s Kitchen, Medina said. So to improve communication with parents at the school, Medina turned to an increasingly popular option: donated services.

Through the help of PENCIL, a nonprofit that forges school-business leader partnerships, Medina’s translation needs were matched to VOCES, the Latino Heritage Network of The New York Times Company, headquartered about a half mile down the road near Times Square.

The public-private partnership is now one of 395 that PENCIL manages in 377 schools in New York City. With the support from cash-strapped city education officials, PENCIL hopes to nearly double that number in coming years.

As part of the P.S. 111 partnership, VOCES has donated resources as well as its professional expertise in translation services to support Medina’s growing need for translations, which include information for parent association meetings and weekly school-issued material.

The department’s in-house translation service, which translate 10 languages, responds to requests based on a first-come, first-served basis. Other languages have to be outsourced to translator vendors. For Medina, that wasn’t an ideal arrangement.

“If you submit something to the Department of Ed, yeah, you can get it translated, but I don’t know how long it’s going to take,” Medina said.

Since partnering with VOCES, Medina said that attendance at parent association meetings is up 30 percent. She attributes the increase in being able to reach more of her foreign-born families, including one that speaks a rare African dialect.

“Even if they didn’t have a translator available, this group is amazing,” Medina said about VOCES. “Within their own network of support they would be able to find someone who was able to translate.”

Losing the work seems to be okay with Chancellor Dennis Walcott and other top education officials, who have encouraged schools to forge public-private partnerships at a time when school budgets are shrinking. Last year, amid a fourth straight year of cuts, Walcott pledged to double the number of PENCIL partnerships in New York City.

“These leaders can meet principals around their specific needs,” Walcott said at the time. “One of the principals said she was doing something and her corporate partner said, ‘there’s a better way you can do it.’ That’s the type of value these partners are adding to the system.”

The public-private partnership trend is also favored by U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who said a cornerstone of his education reforms while running Chicago Public Schools was partnering with the private sector to help schools become more efficient.

“I think the question I have is when you see something this positive you always want to see it expand,” Duncan said after meeting with Medina at P.S. 111 last week. “So the question is, could more schools in this city, could more cities have theses kinds of public-private partnerships?”

PENCIL officials said that about 20 percent of their partnerships end each year as part of natural attrition — sometimes a business moves its headquarters or a professional gets a job in another city.

But President Michael Haberman said he has found it easy to recruit and retain business leaders to work with schools through PENCIL, which also manages about 50 school-business partnerships in Baltimore, Rochester and Philadephia (and soon in Chicago). He said he’s found that businesses get more out of their charitable work when they are volunteering time instead of just donating money.

“It doesn’t have to be about just writing a check,” Haberman said. “It’s more about working on the ground in a school throughout the year.”

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