Ingrid Ocampo said her autistic son waited a year for services from the Philadelphia School District because she does not speak English and couldn't understand the district's forms and policies.
Irma Zamora, another public school parent, expressed concern about signing permission slips printed in a language she can't read.
And Eleuteria Esteban told of seeking out her child's principal only to be told there was no one who could translate the meeting for her.
They were among more than 200 parents who packed a South Philadelphia church basement yesterday to tell school district chiefs they must live up to a 2001 legal agreement that mandates translation services for non-English-speaking families.
Tomas Hanna, chief school operations officer, promised the crowd that the district would do better - and put it in writing.
He and other district officials on hand signed an agreement vowing to increase the number of bilingual counselor assistants and other staff, and to be more open about problems with language access in the district, among other things.
For the last few years, parents with language barriers have been clamoring for help from the district. The burgeoning Spanish-speaking population in South Philadelphia in particular has been vocal about its issues with schools.
Many parents want to participate in their children's education, organizers of yesterday's session said, but they stop showing up at school because there's no way to make their voices heard. Because letters are sent home only in English, they don't know when school is closed or dismissed early, or what they contain.
In many schools, the bilingual counseling assistants are the only translators available to parents, and these employees might be available at school only one day a week, officials acknowledged.
"We want to know how our kids are doing in math, how they're doing in social sciences. We want to know how the school is organized," said Zamora, addressing district officials through a translator. "We want you to know that we are the same quality whether we speak English or not."
Ocampo, who has three children attending South Philadelphia schools in the district, agreed.
"Personally, the professional future of my children is very important. Everything that happens in school, I want to know about," Ocampo said.
While her special-needs son languished for a year because of her language barrier, she said her two daughters in regular classrooms are suffering because she can't communicate with their teachers.
"For me, it's a great injustice," Ocampo said. "You can imagine how frustrating it was to not have a voice and to be ignored because of the lack of services."
When organizers asked Hanna and his district colleagues to sign a document pledging that the district would meet obligations and communicate better with parents, each of them grabbed a marker and signed. Joining Hanna were John Frangiapani, South Regional superintendent; Linda Chen, deputy of teaching and learning; and Claudia Averette, deputy of parent and family services.
Applause and cheers went up from the crowd in the basement of Annunciation Roman Catholic Church at 10th and Dickinson Streets.
Hanna, a former district principal who is bilingual, said the parents' demand was one the district had heard for years.
"This isn't easy, and it's not necessarily that it happens overnight," he said, adding that the district would move beyond the hiring of bilingual counselor assistants to improve bilingual services across the board.
He said a soon-to-be-named head of language and translation services would help oversee a process for hiring not only more bilingual assistants, but also bilingual parent ombudsmen and other staff.
There are currently 14 vacancies for Spanish-speaking counseling assistants, and vacancies in other languages, as well. The district employs about 80 bilingual assistants now.
"We also have to be talking about the rigor of our [bilingual] academic programs," Hanna said. "Sometimes, this gets lost in the dialogue."
Hanna said he found the turnout "hopeful for us. It's a resounding display from our parents and our communities that they want a voice."
School Reform Commission member Heidi Ramirez agreed that a shift in attitude needs to extend beyond signing the agreement.
"It's not just one conversation," she said. "We want a change in the culture."