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All over the map

More than 1 in 10 students in Philadelphia public schools is learning English. But the District struggles to find a clear vision on how best to educate them.

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

The number of English learners, including immigrants, has grown over the last decade to be 12 percent of the enrollment in Philadelphia District schools – more than 1 in 10 students. They and their families speak about 100 languages.

Many are refugees, from countries such as Syria, Sudan, Burma, and El Salvador. More unaccompanied minors arrived in the city this year than two years ago, when the flood of refugee children, mostly from Central America, was in the news, according to agencies that work with them.

Their circumstances and their needs are all over the map. Some are born here into non-English-speaking households. Some are migrant workers who move from place to place. Some are fleeing wars and persecution. Some have spent their entire lives in camps. Some are well-educated in their home country. Some have barely any schooling. Some are immigrants who come here voluntarily, searching for the American dream.

In Philadelphia, the responsibility to meet these students’ needs falls on a district that is perpetually strapped for funds and plagued with leadership turnover in this area. Several people inside and outside the District say that, overall, it is struggling to articulate a vision and develop the ideal approach to serve the ever-changing English learner community – just one of its many daunting challenges.

Philadelphia “needs to adopt district-wide policies ensuring that all students are overcoming language barriers and specifically look at instruction” for English learners, said Maura McInerney of the Education Law Center, which monitors the District on its English learners (EL) policy and services.

A report that came out earlier this year from the Philadelphia Education Research Consortium (PERC), set up in 2014 to study topics requested by the District and charters, found that there is a perpetual shortage of English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teachers, 35 of whom were cut during the District’s budget crisis. ESOL teachers and supervisors interviewed by the researchers expressed concern that they were responsible for too many students to adequately help all of them.

The report said that approaches to EL needs vary greatly by school; several teachers told the researchers that they often didn’t have the appropriate curricular materials and had to construct their own. Often these materials simply are not available. One teacher in the report said, "…If you search for EL-specific materials for American History…there’s not a whole lot out there."

PERC includes the nonprofit Research for Action and three local universities, along with the District.

Its report also noted that EL students enter schools throughout the school year, so counting them in mid-October to determine how many teachers should be allotted to a school for the rest of the year – the current practice – can leave schools scrambling. And besides the total numbers of students, the report said, their levels of proficiency have a huge effect on what kinds of programs and approaches need to be considered.

Lack of vision, standards

The PERC report also outlined the magnitude of the challenge the District faces. Philadelphia educates more than a quarter of the English learners in the state – more than 12,000 students. In the District, 52 percent of the ELs are Spanish speakers; the next largest groups are Mandarin and Arabic, both at 6 percent.

Fourteen other languages, including Russian, Cantonese, Ukrainian and Vietnamese, have at least 1 percent of the total. More than 1,100 students speak one of 82 other languages and dialects.

But Philadelphia and other districts with high numbers of ELs get little help or direction from the Department of Education in Harrisburg, which is also understaffed in this area.

For instance, Pennsylvania has minimal standards for teachers to qualify as ESOL teachers – just five courses to get a “program specialist” certificate. Other states have full ESOL certification.

Plus, there are no requirements for elementary grade or high school subject teachers – even those who teach English learners almost exclusively – to get any special training.

“There’s an absence of statewide direction, guidance, and technical assistance,” McInerney said. “Other states have more robust laws, guidance on what are best practices for refugee students, how to concentrate on older learners who come here as teenagers and need significant ESOL instruction. We bypass that.”

Entering students who are non-native speakers are tested for their proficiency. Those at the lowest levels, 1 or 2 on a scale of 7, are placed in “sheltered classes” – with other ESOL students at the same level. Once students reach level 3, they can be integrated into subject classes with native speakers.

But the logistics are complex, and this system doesn’t work if there aren’t enough ESOL students in the school who are at the same level and need the same courses. In addition, it matters whether most of the students speak the same language or multiple languages.

It is can be an organizational Rubik’s Cube.

Teacher training needed

Pat Ryan, who spent 10 years as the ESOL coordinator at Northeast High School, is now the director of the District’s Office of Multicultural Curriculum and Programs. She is trying to adapt Northeast’s approach for other schools where the concentration of EL students is much lower.

But it is hard. Northeast, with 650 English learners, has enough students to make it work. But other schools don’t have enough students who are studying the same subject and who are at roughly at the same language level – the ideal situation for a sheltered class.

“One day, a student will come in who needs Algebra 1, the next day a 10th grader who needs Algebra 2, and the next day a student who needs 11th-grade chemistry. … I was in a high school yesterday and these kids needed sheltered classes, but they just did not have the numbers for them,” Ryan said in a recent interview.

Students in the earliest stages of proficiency get three periods a day with ESOL teachers for reading, speaking, and writing English. For other subjects, they can be in a sheltered class or put in classes with native speakers for other subjects.

Both options can have issues. A sheltered class when some are proficient and others just arrived is difficult to teach and can be ineffective unless the teacher is particularly skilled. Putting ELs in the general population for their content classes isn’t always a good solution, either.

A huge problem brought up repeatedly in the PERC report is that not enough regular grade and subject teachers are properly trained to teach EL students.

For starters, said Allison Still, the District’s deputy chief in the Office of Multilingual Curriculum and Programs, it is necessary to dispel teacher attitudes that students cannot learn complex content until they know English.

In many schools, the report noted, there is sometimes a “deficit perspective” about English learners that “created challenges for serving and integrating ELs into the school community.”

Still said, “One thing our office helps teachers understand is that students can learn content. They may know it in their first language. You can’t have the mindset that you have to get proficient in the language first before you can start learning content.”

About two dozen high school subject teachers participated in training during August and over several Saturdays this fall in a nationally recognized method for teaching content to English learners that is used in several other cities.

Donna Sharer, a curriculum development specialist in the Office of Multilingual Curriculum and Programs, arranged for the program, called QTEL, but it was not easy. Due to cost and scheduling constraints, the District has limited days available for teacher professional development, and this training ended up conflicting with other District training priorities, she said.

The plan for those who attended the workshops, who are from nine different schools, is for them to pass along what they’ve learned through “turnaround training” to other teachers in their schools.

Teachers “want the theory and they want the practice. They want somebody to move them from where they are and show them how to do it,” said Leslie Kirshner-Morris, the multilingual manager for the network of schools that includes Northeast.

‘They come with intelligence’

Victoria Saganti, who herself immigrated from India, is one content area teacher who understands what students are capable of, even without proficient English skills.

Saganti is a math teacher at the District’s Newcomer Learning Academy, where newly arrived teenagers from other countries spend their first two years. She advises them and urges them to enter science fair competitions.

One of her students, she said, went on to become valedictorian at Benjamin Franklin High School, where the Newcomer Academy was then located, even though she arrived as a teenager speaking Spanish with limited English.

“They come with intelligence, they have the skills,” Saganti said. “I help them plan their hypotheses, their experiments, their procedures, and how to impress the judges.”

Two years ago, a pair of her students from China made it to the state final with an experiment that explained the effect of coleoptile – a protective sheath on some grasses – in plant growth.

Mingwang Jiang, one of those students, is now a senior at the Carver High School for Engineering & Science (his partner in the experiment is attending Pennsylvania State University).

He is doing well and works incredibly hard. But he also agrees with many of the teachers and officials interviewed – that his success is partly due to luck, not to a system that is designed to meet the needs of all students. (Visit the to read a web extra profile of Jiang.)

“My experience is different than most people because I’m so lucky with so many people who helped me from the beginning until now,” he said. “For me, there was somebody behind me to hold my shoulder and push me forward. Teachers should be encouraging to students who can’t speak English to do their best.”

Contact Notebook contributing editor Dale Mezzacappa at; on Twitter @dalemezz. Melanie Bavaria, a freelance writer in Philadelphia who covers education and social issues, contributed to this story.

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