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NYT: At Stuyvesant, Interpreting Parent-Teacher Night

Saturday, March 20, 2010

They were too old to be high school students, but not old enough to be the parents. They were lingering near Room 236 at Stuyvesant High School, a group of 20 young people, all of them Asian, standing awkwardly together, waiting for the moment when their peripheral but crucial role would become clear to the main characters at the event, the vaunted parent-teacher night.

Two big signs at the school entrance, one written in Chinese, explained their mission: Parents in need of interpreters could find them by Room 236. (Teachers supervised the writing of the signs, noted Harvey Blumm, who coordinated the event, “so we’d know they didn’t say, ‘Go find a bathroom and stick your head in it.’ ”)

Sally Liu, 26, a university graduate student in film, came because she knew what it was like to be lost in a sea of English. Lin Lin Cheng, who is 18 and studying paleontology, had some extra time during her spring break. And Ying Lin, 19, an undergraduate interested in business, had always wanted to see the inside of Stuyvesant.

At every school, the parent-teacher conference has an “Alice in Wonderland” feeling — men and women contorting their bodies to fit undersize desks, transported back to a time when they cowered before the judgment of teachers. But the Stuyvesant event is a confusing adrenaline sport on top of that, a mad rush in which strivers race to sign up for meetings with in-demand teachers who will tell them everything they need to know about their children’s academic careers, provided it can be done within the three-minute limit.

For parents who do not speak English — at Stuyvesant, perhaps 5 percent to 10 percent — the process is all the more discomfiting. Stuyvesant, a school of 3,200 students, has seen its Asian population soar to 70 percent, which inspired Mr. Blumm to start asking for volunteer interpreters. Students interpreting for their own parents could be less-than-reliable sources. “You have to watch the parents’ facial expressions pretty closely,” said Gary Rubinstein, a math teacher at the school.

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