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Language obstacles can be conquered

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

Dai Htoo, one of the School District’s bilingual counseling assistants, told the Notebook in this issue that sometimes refugee students and others don’t know what to ask for at school.

“They’re so used to having nothing, they don’t have anything to complain about,” he said. “We have been in a far worse situation.”

Although that may be true, it is the school system’s responsibility to make sure that English learners, and all students, have what they need – appropriate instructional programs, trained teachers to deliver them, and translation services and support to ease the families’ transition to living in the United States.

More than 30 years ago, a lawsuit forced the Philadelphia District to provide the language support services mandated by federal law to immigrant and refugee students and their families. Since then, tremendous progress has been made, but parents still encounter language obstacles that keep them from participating in school meetings, events, and conversations with their children’s teachers.

Implementation of English learner (EL) programs varies from school to school, with little accountability at the school level and less direction from the District itself. Until recently, the District’s Office of Multilingual Curriculum and Programs had been without a director for three years. (Before a recent update, many of the office’s online documents still listed the director’s name from three years ago.) During a recent budget crisis, 35 bilingual counseling assistant positions were cut. These choices say much about how the District views its responsibilities to EL students.

As the District reorganizes and leadership drifts, the number of English learners has swelled. Today, more than 1 in 10 District students is an English learner.

The issue of providing appropriate services for these students comes down to money, political will, and innovative thinking, as it does with many of the complex issues that plague the Philadelphia School District.

All three are needed to make a significant impact on the lives of students who have to learn math, science, history and literature, all in a language that is not their own.

When it comes to money to educate English learners, the story is familiar – there is not enough. The federal government provides about $3.5 million annually, or about $250 per English learner. Notebook freelancer Bill Hangley found out that the money pays for a summer camp, some professional development for teachers, contracts for some community-based organizations, and a few staff positions.The District covers the remaining costs, including classroom materials and 300 EL teachers.

The overall cost comes down to the District’s decision about what to offer, and how. Therein lies the problem.

Pennsylvania law and policy offer only a few concrete guidelines – such as the number of hours of language instruction for students at various levels.

Because of the lack of clear guidelines, the education of English learners in Philadelphia schools is somewhat haphazard and piecemeal – whether these students receive a good education depends heavily on where they go to school. These variations are unacceptable.

In this issue’s profile of Northeast High School, starting on page 18, you’ll find some staggering statistics: Fifty percent of the 3,380-member student body has attended English language classes sometime during their school career. The students, who come from 91 countries, speak 60 languages.

The school came up with a plan – led by an innovative ESOL coordinator and endorsed by the principal – and followed through with it. As the Notebook details, the school created a Small Learning Community for ESOL students called the Academic Language Program. It is one of seven such communities, each of which functions as “a school within a school.” All programming, faculty, rostering, and curriculum are self-contained and designed to most efficiently serve the needs of EL students.

In another key move, the school put a priority on collaboration between EL teachers and content teachers, making sure they had time in their schedules to meet and discuss their classes and curriculum.

Because Northeast has so many English learners — 650 — it is easier to justify spending on significant services.

Research conducted by the Philadelphia Education Research Consortium (PERC) indicates that schools with fewer EL students struggle more to meet the students’ needs. This makes sense — it is harder for principals to justify spending their scarce resources on a small part of the school population.

This is where the innovation comes in. Some District schools — such as Northeast — and some charter schools — such as Folk Arts-Community Treasures, which was just named a National Blue Ribbon School — are doing a lot of things right as they teach English learners. No doubt these techniques can be adapted to fit all kinds of needs. What are the best practices and how can they be repeated? What is the District’s overall vision for the education of English learners, and how will it know if it is succeeding? What seem to be missing are political will and vision.

There are several hopeful signs, however. The District moved Northeast High School’s successful ESOL coordinator, Pat Ryan, to the central office to be the District’s director of multilingual programs and curriculum.

The District also commissioned PERC to study how many ELs are in the system, where they are located, and how well the schools are doing to educate them. We hope that the District will take real action in response to these findings and that they will not be lost in translation.

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