Recent waves of immigrants from around the world have provided a real boost to Philadelphia. Newcomers have slowed the decline in population, contributed new skills and energy to the local economy, and enhanced the city’s impressive cultural diversity.
This large and varied immigrant population represents an untapped asset for the School District. Today’s English language learners (ELLs) could be the next generation of bilingual teachers, doctors, law enforcement officers, and businesspeople essential to the increasingly global and multicultural economy. But this can only happen if they get a good education.
Too often, school systems take a deficit perspective, focusing on the supposed “drain” of disadvantaged families and children on the system. ELLs and immigrants in Philadelphia are hurt by that negative mindset, experiencing isolation and even neglect. At the high school level, we see they have little access to magnet programs.
Until schools find better ways to deliver information to families in their native language and to provide access to grade-level content in language that ELLs can understand, immigrants will continue to be blocked from accessing vital opportunities.
It is a hopeful sign that Superintendent Ackerman has prioritized improving District services to ELLs. Her team is tackling some pressing problems: improving translation services, collecting accurate data, and strengthening professional development for all teachers.
Longer term, there may be more than one answer to the question of how to organize schools to draw positively upon different cultural traditions and languages while effectively educating diverse populations. Educators should promote the value of learning other languages and learning about other cultures for all students. But to do so effectively the District will have to buck two trends:
Politically, bilingual education is out of favor nationally, and it has withered here. Yet we know English language learners do best when literate in their home language. The District should study the research, experiment with different bilingual models at different grade levels, and evaluate what is effective for which students – looking for best practices in both District and charter schools.
The standardized, scripted curriculum demanded by No Child Left Behind has been devastating to teacher efforts to tailor instruction to diverse populations. Schools must have space for curriculum that honors the experiences of students and their families.
Schools must value all our students for what they bring, not marginalize them because they have different needs. Immigrant students need to be at the center of vigorous discussion about educational improvement – with a commitment to identify and implement strategies that help them learn.