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Ahead of school budget vote, advocates say more stability needed

Wailany Olio says her daughter, who has cerebral palsy, is not progressing because her teachers do not speak Spanish.
Veronica Volk
Wailany Olio says her daughter, who has cerebral palsy, is not progressing because her teachers do not speak Spanish.

As the Rochester City School Board prepares to vote on a budget for the next school year, they are facing criticism for their bilingual and special education programs. A report from the Children's Agenda says even though the school district is proposing investments in these areas, there needs to be more transparency and oversight in the process.

Three years ago, Wailany Olio left her home in Puerto Rico and moved to Rochester. She brought her son, who is 8, and her daughter, who is 6.

"I came here to Rochester because of my daughter's condition," she said through a translator. "She has cerebral palsy."

Olio says even though her son is doing well, her daughter is not progressing. She says this is because there are not enough Spanish-speaking teachers at her school who can talk to her about her daughter's needs, or even talk to her daughter themselves.

Olio is not the only parent facing this issue. An outside report in 2017 identified the lack of bilingual teachers as a barrier for all English-learning students, not just those with special needs. And almost 600 new students from Puerto Rico displaced by Hurricane Maria were enrolled in distinct schools this year.

The proposed school budget addresses the issue by hiring 45 more bilingual teachers, with the biggest staff increases in special education. But policy analysts at the Children’s Agenda are concerned that without an improved structure and more stability, the investments won’t be enough.

They released a report calling for a permanent director for bilingual education, and a permanent program to help Spanish-speaking students from Puerto Rico transition successfully.

Representatives from the Children's Agenda also say they will continue to educate and empower parents like Olio, who says she will not stop fighting for what is best for her daughter.

"I want to see her running, at least with a walker," she said. "I want to hear her say 'Mama.' I just ask that we get more united."

Veronica Volk is a senior editor and producer for WXXI News.