Reyna Chavez’s teachers turned to her daily during the past year, asking her to help relay basic instructions to her classmates because she’s fluent in English and Spanish.

“I’ve often been asked to translate to other students, taking away from my own work,” said Reyna, who will graduate from University High School on Friday after attending school in Florida for the first time this year.

The 17-year-old from Puerto Rico was among eight Orange County students, parents, teachers and others who spoke during a public comment period at Tuesday evening’s school board meeting about the need to better serve Spanish-speaking students and families, particularly those who are arriving from the island. The group, Vamos4PR Florida, said the district needs more bilingual employees.

The school district says it recruits candidates from areas with Spanish-speaking candidates, including universities in Puerto Rico and South Florida. There are more than 30,000 English language learners countywide, including 19,324 Spanish-speakers.

“We are working very, very hard as a district to hire as many qualified bilingual educators or teachers as we can,” Chairman Bill Sublette said. “To be very candid, it’s a challenge in the state of Florida.”

Each Orange school has a group for parents of English learners who help make decisions and improve parent involvement. The district also has certified interpreters and offers parent academies in English and other languages, including Spanish.

Puerto Ricans are leaving the island at record rates, largely because of the ongoing debt crisis and economic recession. In Orange County this year, more than 1,000 students had attended school in Puerto Rico the previous year.

Reyna spent most of her childhood in Puerto Rico and New York.

The students and employees who attended Tuesday’s meeting said communicating with families who don’t speak English is a challenge.

Middle school teacher Vanessa Diaz said she doesn’t speak Spanish fluently, so she often relies on Google Translate and other tools to help her communicate with parents.

“In school, I sometimes have to ask bilingual students to help me translate in class,” she said. “I give incentives, but it is not fair to them because it takes time from them focusing on their own education.”

Jill Hakemian, who teaches English for Speakers of Other Languages at Boone High School, said she often fills in as a translator for other school employees, which creates awkward situations. She was once pulled into the dean’s office to help with a conversation about discipline issues for a student that wasn’t in her class.

Reyna also acted as an intermediary between the school and her family. A few months ago, the school nurse had to call Reyna’s grandmother to ask her for permission for Reyna to take medication. The nurse doesn’t speak Spanish and Reyna’s grandmother doesn’t know English, so Reyna translated.

Others said Spanish-speaking students are often placed in the ESOL program, even if they don’t need it. Kaisha Toledo said when her son, Luis Acin, enrolled at West Orange High School three years ago, he was in classes for English learners because the family had just moved from Puerto Rico. He was already fluent.

“I did not understand the program or how it worked, nor did I receive any adequate information when my kid was enrolled,” she said. “I know other parents in our school system had similar experiences. I can only imagine how much more difficult this situation would be to manage for parents who are not fluent in English.”

Acin was frustrated, but after a year, he was able to switch into regular courses. Now 18, he will graduate from West Orange next Tuesday and plans to attend Valencia College.

Toledo said the district needs to have more informational materials available for parents who aren’t fluent in English.

“This lack doesn’t just hurt Spanish-speaking families,” she said. “It hurts all of us.”

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