With Thursday’s deadline looming for families to decide whether they want their children to repeat a grade after the pandemic stunted learning for so many students, the Philadelphia school district and others are scrambling to inform parents about their options and help them complete the necessary paperwork.
Advocates for non-English-speaking parents are working tirelessly to reach families who are most likely to benefit from the new state law, but the least likely to know about it. These efforts come despite unanswered questions about how student retention will affect enrollment for the upcoming school year, which is scheduled to start Aug. 31.
On June 30, Gov. Tom Wolf signed Act 66, which gives parents until July 15 to make what could be a life-changing decision. But full information and forms didn’t go up on the state and district websites until July 6, essentially making that two-week window even tighter.
In Philadelphia, where 13% of students are English language learners and they and their families speak 166 languages, the district recently launched large-scale outreach efforts and addressed barriers to accessing the necessary paperwork.
“The School District of Philadelphia has worked to ensure our families were informed of this law and are aware of their options,” district spokesperson Monica Lewis said. “Information was posted on the district website and social media platforms, as well as each school’s website.”
Lewis said the district has also partnered with more than 200 organizations to get the word out — though she did not provide a list of those organizations.
Parents like Syrita Powers, who has three daughters with disabilities, had trouble last week accessing the online form, which must be printed out, filled out by hand, scanned, and emailed back to the district.
“I’m computer illiterate,” Powers said, adding that she doesn’t own a printer.
To accommodate parents like Powers, the district on Monday made print copies of the form available at district headquarters, 440 N. Broad St. It has also sent texts, emails, and robocalls citywide to inform parents about the new law.
As of Tuesday, the Pennsylvania Department of Education had translated the form into 100 languages. (Families who need translations can click the gray “Translate” button at the top right corner of the webpage.)
Advocates have applauded the new law and the district’s recent efforts to promote it, but caution that the outreach efforts don’t go far enough to ensure that the city’s most vulnerable students are able to take advantage of their new options.
Anna Perng, the co-founder of the Chinatown Disability Advocacy Project, has been on the front lines trying to raise awareness about the law. For the past two weeks, she’s fielded calls from families who have struggled to fill out the forms online, or couldn’t understand the law because their first language isn’t English.
“I was very concerned about how we would reach some of the students and families who would most benefit from this law,” Perng said.
Perng hosted a trilingual webinar — in Mandarin, American Sign Language, and English — to inform parents about their expanded options, and discuss the pros and cons of having their children repeat a year.
It’s a tough decision for many families, Perng said. Although the district is spending millions in COVID-19 relief money to address pandemic-related learning losses through enhanced summer programs, tutoring and additional after-school activities, Perng said some students fell so far behind — due to spotty or no internet, lack of special education services, and the demands of making a living during the pandemic — that repeating a year is their only chance to catch up.
For Megawati Jennings, opting to have her son repeat ninth grade was an easy decision. Jennings said she would help her son, who has an intellectual disability and requires specialized support services, get situated every morning before virtual school started. But with a full-time job, she couldn’t watch him all day.
“Once you leave them alone, they might be doing something else,” Jennings said. “They’re watching TV, playing games.”
Like Powers, she had trouble filling out the form when it became available last week, and sought Perng’s help.
Perng commends the district’s effort to reach families, but says more could be done. She said she would have liked the district to host a publicly available webinar for families to learn about their options. And she’s concerned that, although families can fill out Act 66 forms at district headquarters, officials don’t mention that on the website.
The district’s website does say, however, that neighborhood schools at capacity might not be able to accommodate students who repeat a grade, so some students may have to switch schools. And students at citywide admission schools who decide to repeat a year will need to either switch schools or reapply to their current school.
Perng said the lack of clarity on those issues has created a lot of stress for families already making a time-sensitive decision.
“While I am glad that the School District and PDE have made changes day by day, I think it is important for the education community to really reflect on what we learned from COVID-19 and apply those lessons to what’s happening now,” Perng said. “We cannot build back better education systems when we continue to design processes that exclude historically excluded communities.”