This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
While Mayor Nutter seeks to make the city “immigrant friendly,” and Superintendent Arlene Ackerman promises to bring more equity and increased opportunity to students, the District’s English language learners (ELLs) have had diminishing access to the system’s magnet and special admission schools.
The Notebook reported in its fall edition that three-quarters of the District’s more than 2,200 older ELLs attend just nine of the city’s 62 high schools, most of them on lists for being low-achieving and “persistently dangerous.”
The flip side of that story is the virtual absence of ELLs at most of the District’s top academically selective high schools – the special admission schools – which have test score cutoffs.
At nearly all of the 16 District high schools now classified as selective admission schools for which data are available, ELL numbers have been declining – in some cases sharply – at least since 2002. The High School for Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) had 15 ELL students that year but last spring had only one. Franklin Learning Center went from 46 ELLs in 2002 to 12 in 2008, while at the Bodine High School for International Affairs, enrollment dropped from 31 to eight.
The same trends are apparent at most “citywide admission schools,” including the District’s vocational high schools. These schools set admissions standards for behavior, attendance and grades. Mastbaum’s ELL population fell from 103 in 2002 to 30 last year.
Included in these two categories of high schools are many of the new small schools that were created during the administration of Paul Vallas.
Ackerman is convening a task force to look into ELL and immigrant issues, including their access to high-quality instructional programs. Its first meeting is Friday, Oct. 10, and it is expected to finish a report sometime in November, said Tomas Hanna, the District’s chief of school operations, who is heading up the effort.
“The focus will not just be around instruction, but parent engagement, climate and safety, and attendance and truancy,” said Hanna.
The task force will involve high-ranking District officials, including Linda Chen, the deputy in charge of instruction, and representatives of outside community groups such as ASPIRA, Congreso de Latinos Unidos, Nueva Esperanza, JUNTOS, and SEAMAAC (Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition), Hanna said.
One of the issues likely to be discussed is ELL access to special admission schools, he said. “If it’s raised, we’ll look at it,” he said.
A consent decree reached as the result of a lawsuit in the early 1990s required the District to set aside some spaces in special admission high schools for students with disabilities, and the administration of David Hornbeck extended it to encompass English language learners as well. The case was called LeGare v. School District of Philadelphia.
If a child could make it at a magnet school with “reasonable” intervention, such as one period of ESOL instruction a day, the District agreed that the child should be given the opportunity, according to Len Rieser, co-director of the Education Law Center, which brought the LeGare suit.
The District’s Office of Equity monitored outreach and kept track of how many students applied, were accepted, and attended special admission schools. But staffing of that office was cut back and vigilance waned during the Vallas administration, several people said.
“You can’t just say that kids with disabilities are welcome to apply; you’ve got to change assumptions to get more applications,” Rieser said.
The District translates its high school booklet into Spanish and Chinese, he said, but “it takes more than that to help [parents] identify options and go through the application process. There is a recruiting dimension.”
Plus, there are other issues as well, including parental and student preference, several principals said.
“A lot of our kids that speak other languages do tend to stay in our neighborhood schools,” said Wendy Shapiro, principal of Saul High School of the Agricultural Sciences. “There is a comfort level of being with people who look like them and speak their language.”
But it is not just comfort level, she said. With the demise of busing for desegregation purposes, there is no easy way for students to travel long distances to go to magnet schools.
“I know principals with high Latino and Asian populations who would send us kids, but we have to make it easy to get here,” she said. Saul, on Henry Ave. in Roxborough, is far from any neighborhoods with high numbers of immigrants or non-English speakers.
Saul has one ELL student this year, Shapiro said, and an itinerant ESOL teacher is scheduled to come several times a week.
CAPA and Girard Academic Music Program (GAMP), both easily accessible in South Philadelphia to a wide range of ethnic neighborhoods, have few or no ELL students.
CAPA principal Johnny Whaley said that he has noticed a fall-off in applications from students with disabilities and ELL students over the past several years. Three years ago, he said, he had enough ELL students to have a half-time ESOL teacher. Now, he has one student.
“I’ve reached out,” he said. For students with disabilities and ELLs, test score minimums are waived when students meet the other requirements. “The mastery of math or science is not difficult for many ELL students; it’s the English part,” he said. “We disregard actual testing…that’s not a fair playing field.”
But according to Rieser, some special admission schools have made it a point to say that only advanced ESOL students should apply, which he said should not be the policy, especially at arts schools like GAMP or CAPA that stress skills and specialties not necessarily related to English-language proficiency.
Principals of special admission schools discussed the issue at an all-day meeting on Oct. 2, Whaley said. He and Shapiro both said that the small number of students who do seek out special admission schools apply and are accepted to several, but can only attend one. That means that many special admission high schools accept quite a few students but may only get only a handful, he said. That makes it more difficult to provide services because the school must rely on itinerant teachers.
Also, Whaley said, many magnet schools get students who have gone through ESOL and successfully exited the program. But there are no reliable data on that.
Services in schools where there are just a few ELLs can be spotty at best, according to parents and advocates who work with them.
“Some schools are resistant to having ELL students, and others, it’s hard to know; it is this chicken-and-egg thing,” Rieser said. “The services have to respond to the demand, and when people see no services, that may not make the demand. Or they are told, we don’t have the services, so don’t apply.”
CAPA’s one ELL student will be getting services from an itinerant teacher at least twice a week, Whaley said.
Better preparation needed
Mary Yee, for years head of the District’s Office of Language Access Services and Community Outreach, said that she attributes the decline in ELLs attending magnet schools in part to poorly delivered ESOL instruction in elementary schools. “I think the current instructional model doesn’t prepare enough kids to get to that level,” Yee said.
In fact, data show that most ELL students in Philadelphia are stuck at the third of five levels of English acquisition, meaning that they can converse well but lack the fluency to excel in academics.
Another reason, Yee said, is a “lack of efficient outreach to parents.” Many parents don’t know enough about the way education works in the United States to seek out the best options for their children and are befuddled by the application process.
For instance, the application process for eighth graders is underway right now, with a deadline of October 31, ten months ahead of when a student will be entering high school. The District held an expo highlighting the high school options during the last weekend in September and published flyers advertising the event in six languages.
“They hear rumors [about problems in the neighborhood schools], but because there is no access for the parents around language and they are not socialized around educational system, they don’t even know what a magnet school is,” said Zac Steele, who organizes mostly Mexican parents in South Philadelphia with JUNTOS.
Rosalinda Hernandez, a mother from Mexico, said that she went to her daughter’s elementary school to get information about high schools, since she did not want her to go to South Philadelphia High. The school was helpful, but she had to take the initiative, Hernandez said in an interview that Steele translated.
Her daughter is now a tenth grader at Bok, a vocational school where she is studying culinary arts. She attends ESOL classes there and prefers to be with a cross-section of students, Hernandez said.
Last year Bok had just 22 ELLs, compared to 186 at South Philadelphia, just blocks away.
“To be fair to the schools, I do think the parents need to take some initiative,” Steele said. “But there needs to be somebody who is teaching them how that works.”
Fifteen selective admission and citywide admission high schools had three or fewer ELL students last year, according to data supplied by the School District: the Academy at Palumbo, CAPA, Dobbins, GAMP, High School of Business and Technology, Lankenau, Masterman, Military Academy at Leeds, Motivation, Parkway (all three schools), Randolph, Robeson, and Saul.
Another six schools had fewer than 10 ELLs: Bodine, Communications Technology, Constitution, Douglas, High School of the Future, Military Academy at Elverson, and Science Leadership Academy.
Selective and citywide admissions high schools with more than 10 ELLs include Bok, Carver, Central, Franklin Learning Center, Girls, Mastbaum, and Swenson.