This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Alejandra Filipuzzi was a child care worker in Argentina. Yana Ratmansky worked at a college in Russia. Today they are both Bilingual Counselor Assistants (BCAs) in Philadelphia, working in schools to help immigrant families negotiate the puzzling aspects of American culture and institutions.
The more than 80 BCAs come from places as far away as China, West Africa, Albania, India, Cambodia, and Haiti.
“You can’t operate an ESOL program without BCAs; they are key,” said Marilyn Wentzler of George Washington High School, who has been teaching ESOL in the District for 15 years.
In addition to translating school documents, BCAs use their bilingual skills however they can to keep parents informed about their children’s schooling. They play a vital role during parent meetings, including Comprehensive Student Assistance Process (CSAP) and Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings. Many of them do this in a job that involves spending each day of the week at a different school.
“They have the cultural background to get the job done,” said Wentzler. “We wish they could be there more often.”
A coalition of Mexican and Southeast Asian immigrant parent groups agrees so strongly that parents have gone repeatedly to address the School Reform Commission and District officials on the subject since last spring.
Taggart parent Ingrid Ocampo, representing the community organization JUNTOS, spoke before the SRC in August to restate the group’s request that the District put more Spanishspeaking BCAs in South Philadelphia elementary schools. Testifying in Spanish with a translator, Ocampo said, “It is very important that we have day-today conversation and communication with the staff at our schools,”
Filipuzzi, a Spanish-speaking BCA who splits her time among Swenson, Ethan Allen, and Hopkinson schools in the Northeast region, expressed similar concerns. “I wish I could help them,” she said of the large and growing Chinese population at Ethan Allen, where she works on Mondays. “They need a BCA.”
District Deputy for Teaching and Learning Linda Chen said nine additional BCAs were hired for the fall, on top of 75 positions last year, but the District is still short on BCAs who speak Indonesian and African languages.
“My concern about the BCAs is that they’re often just one day a week,” Chen said. She said the District is committed to fill its new parent ombudsman posts with bilingual staff wherever possible.