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AISD offers Spanish interpretation at high school graduations for the first time

A woman holds a phone that shows the live stream of the graduation happening in front of her but with the ceremony being interpreted into Spanish.
Ry Olszewski
KUT News
Alma Cortés Rodríguez listens to Austin ISD's Spanish interpretation stream during the McCallum Fine Arts Academy graduation on Thursday.

Lee esta historia en español  

As Azul Cepero Cortés graduated from McCallum High School last week, her mom, Alma Cortés Rodríguez, sat proudly among the crowd with headphones in her hands. She normally didn't attend school events, unless it was one of Azul’s ballet performances.

It's not because she doesn’t want to, Alma explains, but because she normally doesn’t understand what is happening because she only speaks Spanish. But this last event was going to be different.

This marked the first year the Austin Independent School District provided Spanish interpretation at high school graduation ceremonies.

In AISD, 54% of the students are Hispanic or Latino, making up the biggest demographic group within the system. Interpretation was provided through a Facebook livestream on the AISD parent support page.

Signs congratulating the class of 2024 in different languages were hung around the Burger Arena. Other signs had a QR code and read “¿Quiere escuchar el evento en español?” (Want to listen to the event in Spanish?)

Alma scanned the QR code but realized she was logged out of her Facebook account and didn’t remember the password. She tried looking for the video elsewhere online but couldn’t find it. Alma sat by herself, worried she would miss the interpretation.

A woman stands in front of a sign with a QR code on it and tries to scan it with her phone.
Ry Olszewski
KUT News
Alma Cortés Rodriguez scans a QR code to access Austin ISD's Spanish interpretation stream of the graduation ceremony on Thursday.

In Mexico, Alma was very involved with her daughters’ schooling, but that changed when they moved to Austin. Alma and Azul moved from Aguascalientes, Mexico, four years ago. Azul’s high school experience was challenging for the pair. They had to navigate the difference in culture and language.

“At first I would try to participate in meetings ... but I ended up feeling despaired,” Alma says. “Even if I had wanted to participate actively, I was very limited because of language [barrier].”

Alma said she was only able to talk to one of Azul’s teachers at a parent-teacher meeting because “he made an effort.”

Ofelia Maldonado Zapata, an AISD school board trustee, said it was important to acknowledge how far language access has come in the district.

“Back when I was in school, I was spanked for speaking Spanish. That’s all I knew,” she told KUT in an interview. She grew up in Austin and attended AISD schools. “They spanked it out of me.”

She said it's important to acknowledge that non-English speaking people have historically been excluded from community and school events because of a lack of language access.

"This is an important opportunity and a new culture we are creating at AISD of being inclusive in every form possible, to be respectful of everyone," Maldonado Zapata said.

Unlike most families at the graduation, Alma didn’t understand what was happening at the beginning. It wasn't until her other daughter, Aranza, arrived, that she was able to log into her Facebook account. She immediately started livestreaming the interpretation video and shared her headphones with one of her nieces who arrived with Aranza.

Azul Cepero Cortés and her mother, Alma Cortés Rodríguez, right, pose for a portrait before Cortés' graduation ceremony on Thursday.
Ry Olszewski
KUT News
Azul Cepero Cortés and her mother, Alma Cortés Rodríguez moved to Texas four years ago. Cortés Rodríguez says the language and culture change was a challenge for both of them.

AISD is not the only district that offered interpretation this year. The Pflugerville Independent School District did too. According to a spokesperson, 34% of the district's students speak another language at home, with one-fourth speaking Spanish.

Funding constraints are part of the challenge as school districts try to serve their non-English-speaking population.

In Pflugerville ISD, the initiative was only possible after a friend of a district translator donated equipment with enough transmitters to have the interpretations at the ceremonies.

In AISD, if families wanted to access interpretation services, they had to bring their phones and headphones to graduation.

While this wasn’t ideal for AISD families, there was a silver lining. Streaming the video allowed extended family members to be part of the ceremonies. Family and friends from different parts of Texas and abroad congratulated graduates in the comment section. One of them read “Panamá está contigo,” or "Panama is with you."

Alma wasn't able to send the video to her family after her struggles to access it. During the ceremony, Alma nodded her head with teary eyes. She felt like she was finally a part of something she had been missing out on for the last four years.

“I went from being a spectator to being an active participant,” she said.

On graduation day, she finally felt part of the community.

“It’s so important because this is all a big achievement," she said. "And if you can’t understand [what’s happening] then, what are you celebrating?”

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