This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Although one in eight students in Philadelphia public schools now come from homes in which English is the second language, services for them are being dismantled through the District’s budget cuts, activists told City Council.
Schools serving these students lack materials, are largely staffed by inexperienced teachers in overcrowded classrooms, do not have enough counselors, and have cut back crucial translation and outreach services to parents, they said.
"This year alone, the interpreters at the schools have been cut by half, the positions of 18 ESOL teachers have been eliminated, as well as 17 language teachers," said Miguel Andrade, a leader of Fuerza, the youth leadership committee of JUNTOS.
JUNTOS is an immigrant community organizing group working on issues including education, labor, immigration, and human rights.
"Given these conditions, many young people are disengaged in school and feel lost," Andrade said, noting the high dropout rate, especially among Latinos. "If the District wants to make a commitment to equity, it must figure out how to address the high dropout rate for Black and Latino youth."
In addition, two welcome centers for immigrant students have been closed and bilingual liaisons have been reduced.
Andrade said that immigrant students are largely "turned away" from charter schools. "Our public schools received less money while the little money we did get had to be redistributed to various charter schools who don’t serve our community’s needs."
Parents Eva Serrano and Angelica Victoriano testified in Spanish through an interpreter.
"There are no more afterschool programs, they suspended all ESOL classes, they cut days interpreters are present, they cut a special education teacher and a gym teacher, and they reduced the number of days a nurse is present," said Serrano, mother of a 4th grader at Nebinger School.
She urged the council to back a plan that would halt further cuts to bilingual staff and ESOL teachers; require the training of principals and administrative staff on interpretation; include bilingual staffing line-items on school budgets; and institute formal training to counselors on undocumented students’ rights.
"We believe that it is necessary that the School District support [Latino students] and other immigrant students with the necessary programs so that they can achieve success and avoid delinquency."
Victoriano, who has two children at Andrew Jackson Elementary, said her school no longer has a security guard, no afterschool programs, no homework help, and no summer school. She seconded Serrano’s plan.
"We fear that in the coming year, there will be more cuts and more children in classrooms, and this will cause a mess," she said, referring to the possibility of larger class sizes.
She also said she is wary about the District’s plan for more "autonomy" for schools and concerned that there will not be a regional office. "We are concerned that with the school decentralization, there will be no supervision to the schools."
The District is working on reorganizing into "clusters" of schools instead of regions but has so far said little publicly about how this will work, and is still developing a plan for how school autonomy will play out in practice.
Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez responded that the cutbacks, especially of bilingual services to help parents, "is something of great concern."
For many parents, the bilingual assistants are "a lifeline," she said.
Without being specific, Sánchez promised "tough decisions" as the District’s budget picture becomes more clear. City Council is considering a property tax reassessment plan that would result in an estimated $94 million in additional funds to the District next year, but that proposal was not a topic of discussion at this hearing.