Numbers of English language learners (ELLs) and immigrant students have been declining since 2006, say District officials, and with the decline come cuts in funding for ELL programs.
But advocates for language minority students say that the District’s citywide totals don’t capture the complex movements within Philadelphia’s diverse ELL population, which still numbers over 12,000 and includes speakers of more than 50 languages.
“While there may have been a slight decline overall, that’s largely due to declines in specific neighborhoods,” said Regan Cooper, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition (PICC). “What we’re seeing is a shift in the population. In specific schools, we are seeing a really dramatic need for language assistance.” Analysis of ELL enrollments since 2000 show that declines in numbers like the current one are not uncommon. Within a period of overall growth, the enrollment has been seen to go down for two years and then up again in a third.
Inconsistencies in the counting may also cause fluctuations in the total ELL enrollment.
The declining total number of ELLs masks nuances such as these, and does not necessarily translate into reduced need for services at most schools.
“It can distract us from the issues to talk about the size of the population,” Cooper warned. “The real issue is – is that population getting served?”
More immigrants but fewer ELLs?
According to District statistics, an upward trend in the number and percentage of ELLs in Philadelphia from 2000 to 2006 has reversed in the past two academic years.
Federal allocations for ELL programs – which are based on the total number of ELLs and the percent increase in immigrant students – will drop sharply in the coming year (see p. 21), despite appeals for expanded services from local community groups. For example, community organizers and others who work with immigrants in South Philadelphia describe an “explosion of young families” moving into the area, mostly Mexicans.
However, Ana Sainz de la Peña, a longtime District administrator for ESOL programs, noted that many new immigrants do not have school-aged children. “Lots of people… say that the number of immigrants has increased in the city, which could be true,” she said. “But let’s not equate the number of immigrants who live in the city with the number of immigrant students.”
Overall student enrollment is declining districtwide and at many schools. However, an analysis of enrollment data at schools with the highest numbers of ELL students reveals there are still dozens of schools where ELL numbers have gone up in the last two years, most of them in Northeast Philadelphia.
Populations are shifting, with severe declines in ELLs at other schools, particularly those in the heart of Puerto Rican North Philadelphia.
Both Clemente Middle School and Edison High School lost more than 100 ELLs between 2006 and 2008. Nearby Potter-Thomas, an elementary school that once housed a celebrated Spanish- English bilingual program, saw its ELL population wither by more than 500 students since 2000. The five schools with the highest numerical losses since 2000 were all located in this part of the city.
The biggest gains since 2000 have occurred at Northeast High School, whose linguistically diverse neighborhood includes a high concentration of Russians and other Central and Eastern Europeans. Together, these populations make up one of the largest immigrant groups in the city today, according to a recent paper by the Philadelphia Migration Project at the University of Pennsylvania.
Some point out that the way in which students are identified, served, and exited from ESOL programs (English for Speakers of Other Languages) could also have an impact on District trends. ELLs could be dropping out at a higher rate, or not be tested for inclusion in the program.
Cooper explained, “Our other concern here is, how is somebody classified as an English language learner? It seems to be that there is not a great system in place to do this in a standardized way.”
Although procedures for classifying ELLs are outlined in the OLCA Handbook and 2004 Language Policy, internal District studies show that schools are all over the map in how they test, place, and exit ELL students.
A January 2008 evaluation found some improvements, but ELL data collection, reporting, and compliance procedures for exiting students were not up to standard in many schools.
ELL enrollment is influenced when criteria change for evaluating language proficiency and exiting students from ESOL. The District now requires that all students exit after five years, but it has also adopted a tougher exit test. Such changes affect enrollment numbers and make it difficult to interpret trends.
Recent history shows fluctuations in District ELL enrollment. Between 2003 and 2005, there was also a drop in ELL numbers, followed by a sharp increase of 1,000 students in 2006. But federal aid to school districts for ELLs does not factor in the possibility of such reversals.
And because the U.S. Department of Education defines an immigrant as a person born outside of U.S. territory, the District receives no extra money for newly arrived Puerto Rican students, who face similar challenges as noncitizen ELLs. This is a major issue for a city with the third largest Puerto Rican population outside of Puerto Rico.
Data may not adequately account for undocumented immigrants, who have a legal right to education, no questions asked.
“When you look at one or two years in a vacuum, you can make the numbers say anything,” said Cooper. “But you need look at longer-term trends, and the trends are that English language learners are a growing proportion of the school-age population. We need to figure out a better to way to educate these children and engage their families in their education.”