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From the archives: Bilingual education gets big boost

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

The Notebook was launched in 1994 as a newspaper committed to ensuring quality and equity in Philadelphia public schools. We are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the first publication this spring. We are featuring an article from our archives each week, shedding light on both the dramatic changes that have taken place in public education and the persistent issues facing Philadelphia’s school system.

From the Fall 1998 print edition:

by Helen Gym

Innovation came suddenly for teacher Shouben Li.

Notified the night before the first day of school for staff that he was a pilot teacher in a new bilingual program in Chinese at McCall Elementary School, he hastily gathered what few materials he could and brought them to his new classroom. Despite a frantic two days to prepare, Li said he knew his efforts would be well rewarded when he met his students.

"They are very happy to be here," said the seven-year teaching veteran. "Many of them felt they did not learn very much in the previous year. But if they don’t understand the concept in English, I can explain in Chinese. In this way, they will understand."

Li is one of six teachers beginning pilot bilingual programs in Chinese, Khmer, and Russian. The Chinese bilingual programs have opened at McCall and South Philadelphia High School. The Khmer bilingual program for Cambodian students is located at Kirkbride Elementary. The pilot Russian bilingual program is shared between Loesche Elementary and Rush Middle School.

The programs, all of which are in varying stages of development, are designed to expand the District’s bilingual education beyond Spanish.

With over 30,000 children, or 15 percent of the District, coming from non-English speaking homes, it is critical that the District respond to student needs, according to Mary Ramirez, director of the Office of Language Equity Issues (OLEI).

"This District and this administration are fully committed to having students graduate with proficiency in two languages," Ramirez said. "We see bilingual programs as a ‘best practice’ toward meeting that goal."

McCall and South Philadelphia’s programs are full bilingual programs, meaning students, all of whom are in the 5th grade and higher, will study Chinese language and culture, math, science and social studies in Chinese. They will also take English language and literature courses to bolster their English skills. The students will take nonacademic courses with native English speakers. The Khmer and Russian programs will offer those two languages as a world language course.

McCall’s program was founded largely through community and parent demands. Two years ago, hundreds of parents, dissatisfied with their children’s education, gathered at a local church in Chinatown to demand better programs.

Parents from McCall said that, while they are optimistic, many are adopting a "wait and see" approach to the program.

"The previous ESOL program [at McCall School] did not serve the kids very well ," said Jeremy Cheng, a parent organizer for the Chinatown Parents Association. "They want to see the School District support this initiative in order to make the program a good program."

Ramirez said the District is working to make the programs "dual language" programs, meaning students who are native English speakers can participate. She said her office is also exploring the possibility of adding new languages such as Vietnamese.

"We would like to see bilingual programs everywhere there’s a need if there’s community support for it," Ramirez said.

The District has continued to strengthen its Spanish bilingual programs, now in place at 19 schools. For the first time, Spanish-speaking students in the Edison cluster can participate in bilingual programs from elementary school (Potter-Thomas) through middle and high school (Julia de Burgos Middle and Edison High). The Kensington cluster is also planning to establish common feeder patterns for bilingual education.

In addition, the District is entering its second year with the Newcomer Center, an English language and literacy program for high school students with no English or native language literacy skills. Last year the pilot program, located behind South Philadelphia High School, had 40 students, primarily African and Chinese.

One of the challenges to bilingual education is the lack of knowledge on the part of
schools and administrators, said Mary Yee, OLEI program specialist. Administrators, teachers and staff from school to cluster to downtown need to know about issues of second language acquisition, bilingual educationand the academic and psychological needs of English language learners.

Yee said the expansion of bilingual and ESOL programs was an "issue of equity."

"It’s not only because we have bilingual education for Spanish-speaking students, but also because we know that first-language literacy is one of the critical factors for children in learning," Yee said. "Bilingualism is an asset, not a problem."

Back at McCall School, despite the challenges of implementing a pilot program from scratch, the enthusiasm for Li’s class is obvious from the students.

"Before, we looked like a fool waiting for lunchtime, waiting for school to be over," said one 7th grader, who said he was most looking forward to learning math.

"If I don’t understand, my teacher will speak in Chinese and explain it to me," said one 5th-grade boy, who said he spoke English but didn’t feel like he communicated well. "I will understand faster."

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