Throughout the 2019–2020 school year, our We Are DOE series will highlight some of the everyday heroes of NYC’s public schools. Featuring a cross-section of the DOE’s 140,000+ employees across the five boroughs, We Are DOE showcases some of the many unsung heroes who help keep the largest school system in the country running daily.
Today, please welcome the leader of the Haitian Creole Team within the DOE’s Translation and Interpretation Unit, Martine Jolibois.
“When families from Haiti come to New York City, everything is very different from what they are used to, and it’s easy for them to get lost. Language is one barrier, but so is the complexity of the school system, which is much smaller and simpler back home. So I feel that by translating documents that can guide those families, we can help them so much.”
That is why Martine Jolibois, leader of the Haitian Creole Team in the DOE’s Translation and Interpretation Unit, describes herself as “very, very passionate” about her work. Martine, a native of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, joined the DOE in 2008 after her two daughters began attending public schools in Kew Gardens Hills in Queens. As an actively involved PTA member, she gained a strong sense of how important translated documents were to families who do not speak English.
Martine and her two Haitian Creole colleagues are part of a 40-plus member team responsible for making a wide range of documents accessible to families speaking nine different languages. About 40% of City families speak a primary language other than English. Translation services are codified in Chancellor’s Regulation A-663 to ensure that all families have full access to programs and information that are critical to their children’s education. Those translated documents range from the Chancellor’s Regulations and school calendars, to school enrollment bulletins and notices about vaccinations. And there’s no shortage of work: the Translation and Interpretation Unit completed their 30,000th translation assignment earlier this year.
The Translation and Interpretation Unit has expanded significantly over the decade that Martine has worked for the DOE, with teams created for different languages that used to be assigned to only one individual. Yet Martine says they are constantly busy: “Pretty much every day we have a rush job—usually a short 300 to 500-word letter that needs to get into student backpacks to let parents know that something important is happening.”
Martine and her colleagues focus on documents—oral interpretation services at public events are subcontracted to private vendors. Still, she has had many opportunities to see how her efforts have helped families. “I was at a high school fair with my daughter, and I saw a family standing there not knowing what to do,” Martine says. “I thought they might be from Haiti, so I approached them and learned in Creole that they were very new to the City and didn’t speak any English. So I helped them find some of the documents I had translated—a calendar, an agenda for the fair, some flyers. They were able to read those so they could register their kid for different programs, and they were like, ‘Oh, thank you so much!'”
“Language is one barrier, but so is the complexity of the school system, which is much smaller and simpler back home… I feel that by translating documents that can guide those (non-English speaking) families, we can help them so much.”
– Martine Jolibois, Haitian Creole Translation Team Lead
Martine and her team meet regularly with colleagues who translate languages from all over the world. Though they may all be thinking in different languages, they share strategies about challenges they all face. Those include targeting a reading level between sixth and ninth grade to be as clear as possible, and finding the closest counterparts to distinctively English words and phrases. In the process, the translators’ daily work reinforces the DOE’s broad commitment to diversity and inclusion.
The Translation and Interpretation Unit’s camaraderie extends to holiday celebrations where the teams bring in food from their native countries. Martine says, “We work together, we meet together, we play together, and we eat together. We have a building full of foodies and really look forward to our holiday feasts. We are really good as a group, and we all really care about our students and families.”
We thank Martine and the entire Translation and Interpretation Unit for working to ensure that all NYC families, regardless of their native language, are provided with information and guidance that they can understand in order to help their children succeed in school.
Together, We Are DOE.