This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
by Margaret Ernst
Eric just doesn’t seem to get it. He’s always playing with his pencil, folding paper into origami when he should be listening, and leaning his head on his desk. And it’s getting on Tony Danza’s nerves.
Tonight on “Teach,” Danza comes head to head with the issues facing many immigrant students, and their teachers, in the Philadelphia schools. He’s bothered by the behavior of Eric Choi, a Korean student who acts bored and disengaged in class. Eric’s side of the story is that Danza’s the problem. He’s not controlling the class and goes off-topic all the time. Finally, when Eric cries after he does poorly on a test, Danza holds a parent-teacher conference with Eric’s father. But there’s a third and vital party present–a bilingual counselor assistant (BCA).
BCAs are central to the support the District provides for ELL families like Eric’s. They serve as a liaison between schools and parents, translating school documents and conversations in conferences. Their language skills are important but in many cases, so are their cultural skills. On “Teach,” Danza doesn’t use the meeting as an opportunity to understand Eric’s background or the pressure he faces from his parents. But by opening the door to communication, BCAs do make connections across cultures possible.
Advocacy by parent groups like SEAMAAC and JUNTOS helped bring the number of BCAs from 75 to around 100 over the past three years. Translation services are facilitated through the Office of Parent, Family, Community Engagement & Faith-Based Partnerships, with help from the new Multilingual Department in the Office of Teaching and Learning.
The Notebook focused its Fall 2008 edition on immigrant students. The edition includes:
- A cover story about parents working to get more BCAs at their children’s schools
- A student’s description of how he does most of the translating for his parents himself
- A glossary of terms relating to English language learners
- A description of BCAs and their role
- A timeline of language equity in the U.S.
The Notebook covers immigrant student issues in Philadelphia in partnership with a coalition working to improve language access.
Tonight’s episode offers an opportunity to reflect on the relationships between ELL students, their parents, and teachers. How are our schools doing in addressing the needs of ELL students? What other supports are needed for ELL families to communicate with schools?
Additional research by Lauren Goldman.