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Not English-only

As the city welcomes immigrants, the District struggles with growing language diversity.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Philadelphia’s foreign-born population is growing, and Mayor Nutter wants to make the city, including its school system, more welcoming to immigrants.

But the School District’s effort to teach an ever-changing and diverse group of English language learners (ELLs) has been plagued by disorganization, insufficient teacher training, and a lack of consistent, effective instruction.

Advocates and the District’s own evaluations point out that in many schools, these students are marginalized academically and their families effectively shut out of meaningful communication about their children.

The state has begun to institute some new requirements, but there has been uneven referral of students to English for Speakers of Other Language (ESOL) programs, little systematic tracking of their progress, and no standards for exit into regular English classes.

Of some 12,000 students placed in ESOL, only 11 percent reach a level of proficiency in English necessary to exit from the program, according to District data.

Even so, there has been little consistency from school to school in who leaves ESOL, who stays, and why.

“It was like the wild, wild West; everybody did what they thought best,” said Ana Sainz de la Pena, who oversaw the District’s ESOL and bilingual programs for five years through the Office of Language, Culture, and the Arts (OLCA). “Some stayed in ESOL two years, some 12 years.”

The problems are not just in the classroom.

Immigrant parents and advocates have petitioned the District for months to increase the number of bilingual counselor assistants, or BCAs, to facilitate school communication. They have met with little success – even though the District has ended the past several budget years with a reserve of federal funds targeted for ELL support services (see more about federal funds).

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and her new deputy for teaching and learning, Linda Chen, promise to usher in change.

“My fear is that these are young people who need different kinds of programs, and we’re certainly going to have to focus in a very different way than we did in the past,” Ackerman said. “Educating ELLs is not something that happens only with ESOL teachers; it happens in the regular classroom.”

In a September 3 interview, Ackerman said that management of services for English language learners has been pulled out of OLCA and will be given more prominence as an issue of academics rather than culture. A national search is underway for someone to head instruction for ELLs within the teaching and learning office, she said.

“We’re trying to build an awareness at every level on developing the strategies and supports that ELLs need,” added Chen, who has written a book about literacy and young English language learners. “There are English language learners everywhere.”

Advocates agree that the time for revamping instruction for ELLs and recognizing their learning needs is long overdue, but they warn that it will require much more than administrative reorganization.

“OLCA is the least of the problems,” said Len Rieser of the Education Law Center. “The problems are the other departments where ELLs are not prominently on the radar screen.”

Twenty years ago, Rieser and the Center filed a class action suit against the District on behalf of a Cambodian student who was receiving inadequate services. Most of the programs that have evolved and the monitoring of ELLs done today grow out of that ongoing lawsuit, known as the Y.S. case, after the initials of the plaintiff.

The profiles drawn in internal District evaluations and those done to determine compliance with Y.S. show that schools vary widely in how they deal with their ELLs.

Circumstances are different; some schools have many ELLs, and others just a few. In some, students speak many languages; in others, just one or two.

Photo: Harvey Finkle
Southwark parent and JUNTOS activist Anastacia Lorenzo (right) spoke on the need for better translation services and more school supports for immigrant families in City Council education hearings in May at Hunter School. Also testifying from JUNTOS were Irma Zamora (left) and Martha Lara.

Scattered services

The major problems, the evaluations revealed, are that services are scattered and follow-up is inconsistent. Students sometimes aren’t placed appropriately, tested regularly, or tracked effectively. In some schools, even basic record-keeping is lacking. The reports and Notebook interviews indicate that in many cases, teachers and students become comfortable in an ESOL cocoon, which sometimes delays students’ exit from ESOL.

“One of the most important things my office has always looked at … is to tell all teachers in the District that they [are responsible for] these children, they are not [just] the children of others,” said Margaret Chin, who headed OLCA from its formation in 2002.

Of particular concern are older ELL students, many of whom arrive with little their own countries. Data show that most adolescent ELLs are concentrated in nine large high schools with serious academic and school climate problems (see ELLs’ limited high school choices article).

“The central issue I see is that the District has not taken an overall proactive approach,” Rieser said. “ELLs have been marginalized in the bureaucracy,” he added, and many schools have followed suit.

Ackerman’s arrival coincides with some state initiatives regarding ELLs. New state rules require that all students exit ESOL programs after five years, preferably having reached the highest level of achievement, the one at which they are deemed to have mastered academic English. The state is in the second year of implementing a more rigorous test.

Until recently, the state offered the District little monitoring and even less help in educating ELLs. There were no special requirements for ESOL teachers until 2004, no rules on how long students could or should stay in ESOL, no state-approved test of either language or academic proficiency.

For the bulk of the school day, most ELLs attend regular classes with other students. But there has been no requirement – that will change in 2011 – that teachers of core subjects who have ELLs in their classes receive any training on how to best communicate with them.

No Child Left Behind forced increased state monitoring when the law identified English language learners as as one of the subgroups that need to improve test scores in order for schools to meet federal academic achievement goals. Critics of the law say it also has stopped any effort to address the social and cultural issues.

“Schools are too focused on Adequate Yearly Progress to conduct programs on the value of cultural difference any more,” said Mary Yee, the former District coordinator for language access services.

A look at the data shows that most ELL students in Philadelphia are not progressing past the third of five levels – good enough for conversation, but not good enough to master academic work.

In most schools, ESOL is offered instead of reading in the elementary grades and English in the upper grades. Depending on the number of ELLs in a school, it can be as a self-contained class or in a “pull-out” situation. Sometimes, for higher-level students, an ESOL teacher will also be in class to help out – so-called “push-in.”

At a convocation for principals in August, one session was devoted to training on integrating ELLs more fully into the school and making sure they are properly identified and placed. ESOL teachers will be required to attend professional development on the core curriculum, which they haven’t been up to now, Ackerman said.

Newcomer Chen said she expected that the District would institute more bilingual programs, as research has shown that they are more effective in helping students acquire both language skills and content knowledge. Now, there is just a handful around the city. However, they have fallen out of favor politically and educationally as part of an “English-only” trend nationwide.

“We’re putting students in a very restrictive environment [in ESOL] when it’s an English-only environment and they can’t access the content,” Chen said. “That does a disservice to children.”

Segregating students and pulling them out of regular classrooms can stigmatize ELLs and lead to harassment, which few schools work on combating, said Yee.

Chen also said it is important to help parents to communicate with the schools. Among the parent ombudsmen Ackerman is hiring for schools will be many who are bilingual, she said.

Ackerman said she is making additional translation a priority through creation of an office of translation services.

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