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For ELL services, a tumultuous year

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

by Willie Colón Reyes

Although the School District has signaled its intent to hold the line on further cuts to English language learner instruction and services, this school year’s budgetary upheavals have taken a toll on the system’s programs for ELL students and families.

The year started with significant cuts to ELL instruction and supports – cuts that were mitigated by varying degrees as the year progressed, according to information provided by Lucy Feria, deputy chief for multilingual programs, and a Notebook analysis of District budget documents.

A 10 percent budget cut to ELL instruction resulted in 31 English for Students of Other Languages (ESOL) teachers being laid off in June 2011. But according to Feria, 12 of those teachers were restored by December 2011, leaving a net total of 19 fewer ESOL teachers.

As the District prepares to adopt a new budget on Thursday, no schools are expected to lose ESOL positions in the fall.

Feria noted that there are now 302 ESOL teachers, a number that will decrease next year to 293. The drop reflects nine teaching positions in District schools that are being converted to charters in newly identified Renaissance Schools.

Jamie Roberts, now the sole full-time ESOL teacher at Isaac Sheppard Elementary School in Kensington, said this year’s cuts have added to her workload tremendously.

“Last year at Sheppard, we had three ESOL teachers and two half-day bilingual tutors,” Roberts said. “At the beginning of September, it was just me. It was overwhelming.”

Roberts was the only teacher for 80 ESOL students, and class sizes mushroomed from between 8 and 16 to about 24.

“I was really afraid I wouldn’t be able to provide what the students needed,” Roberts said.

A half-time ESOL teacher was added in October, but Roberts expects that at the start of the new school year, it will be just her again until another half-time teacher is assigned to Sheppard.

“All of my colleagues have suffered cuts; they’re all overwhelmed,” Roberts said. “At Sheppard, even when we had three ESOL teachers, we could have used more to do the kind of job we wanted.”

The Office of Multilingual Curriculum and Programs, which oversees ELL instruction, also was cut by 10 percent last spring. Feria explained that the decrease reflected the elimination of two of the District’s four Enrollment Centers, along with half the staff of those centers, which was reduced from eight to four. The centers facilitate communication between immigrant and refugee communities and local schools.

Next fall, there are no projected cuts to the Enrollment Centers or to staff in the Multilingual Curriculum office, but the District’s two Newcomer Learning Academies will be consolidated at one site. The academies offer a 6- to 12-month accelerated instructional program to newly arrived English language learners who have limited or no prior formal schooling.

ELL support services fared considerably worse than other areas, and those cuts were only somewhat offset later in the year.

In June 2011, the number of bilingual counseling assistants (BCAs) was cut nearly in half, from 102 to 59. The BCAs translate school paperwork into parents’ native languages and help parents navigate unfamiliar school bureaucracies.

Families of ELL students have felt the impact of the BCA cuts.

“Now you have BCAs split between several schools instead of being in one,” said Adriana Arvizo, the parent organizer for JUNTOS, an immigrant organizing group. “So when a BCA is working on a specific case in one school, there’s a lack of continuity.”

Arvizo added that other school staff members are often not as aware of additional support services available to ELL families, such as the translation hotline that students and parents who have difficulty speaking English can call to communicate problems and concerns in their own languages.

The School Improvement Support Liaisons (SISLs), a new position begun in 2011 and funded by the School Improvement Fund, administered by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, took on some of the support services formerly provided by BCAs.

However, Feria was quick to note that SISLs did not replace the BCAs. “Their job is to support all students and parents, not any particular group,” Feria explained.

Forty-six SISLs were hired, and Feria said that roughly 17 of the SISLs are bilingual.

“A SISL’s bilingual ability helps them to better support students and parents who speak languages other than English,” Feria said, “but it doesn’t mean they can only limit their student and parent interactions to that single group.”

Two other offices serving immigrant families suffered only moderate cuts. The Translation Center, which provides translation of written documents, did not have any staff reductions. The Multilingual Family Support Center, which provides a range of support services to ELL students and families, lost one full-time staff member but still has a full-time director and two part-time outreach staff members.

And as the District considers major structural changes in the way it operates, Arvizo from JUNTOS said her organization will have to be vigilant that immigrant students and families are not further disadvantaged, even if there are no further cuts to ELL programs. “We want to make sure that parents who speak another language can have access and ways to get involved in the schools,” she said.