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by Willie Colon

The School District announced plans in the spring to consolidate its Newcomer Learning Academies (NLAs) at one site at Benjamin Franklin High School. But there was still community skepticism about the basic premise of the program: Some wondered whether it was wise to segregate and potentially isolate newly arrived immigrant students.

For a group of local immigrant families, though, those concerns were largely put to rest after a delegation from Philadelphia traveled to Allentown in early June and heard from students at a similar program that had just completed its first year.

“I was worried because I thought: Is this a case of racism? Are they trying to separate the Latinos and other recent immigrants from everyone else?” said Angelica Victoriano, a member of the parents’ committee at JUNTOS, an immigrant organizing group.

The NLAs were developed for newly arrived immigrants who have low literacy skills in their native languages or have had their education interrupted. Philadelphia’s is designed to be a one-year program and is open to students ages 14 to 20.

Victoriano was part of a 16-member delegation organized by the School District that took a field trip to Allentown’s Newcomer Academy. She said the experience helped allay her worries. “The students [in Allentown] said they felt motivated, supported by their teachers, and they were enthusiastic about the school,” Victoriano said.

“The students seemed very happy,” concurred Adriana Arvizo, the parent organizer at JUNTOS, who also traveled to Allentown. “It seemed like the ideal school.”

Jane Schreiber, director of the Office of English Language Acquisition in Allentown, says she initially shared those same concerns about segregation and isolation. However, she’s encouraged by the results so far.

“If this program were longer than one year, I would worry more,” Schreiber said. “But these students are now confident and ready [to join the general student population]. They’re not afraid anymore.”

She added that students in the Allentown program are scoring well on the standardized ACCESS test of English language proficiency, and seniors who went through the program have been accepted at local colleges.

A recent independent evaluation of the Philadelphia School District’s English language learner programs revealed that the NLA program here also seems to be on the right track. The evaluation by Metis Associates, a national research and consulting firm, reported “positive teacher and student self-report about program impact, especially in the areas of English acquisition, social and communication skills and cultural acclimatization.” The program also appeared to boost attendance rates.

Philadelphia’s program began during the 2010-11 school year in three high schools: the Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush, Edison, and South Philadelphia. Due to budget constraints, the District cut that number to two this past year.

This year, a single, centrally located site at Ben Franklin on North Broad Street will serve students citywide.

Deborah Wei, director of the Office of Multilingual Curriculum and Programs, noted that reducing the number of sites to one is a consolidation, not another downsizing. “My proposal was to collapse these into one program so we could get a critical mass of students, focus the professional development of teachers and staff, and hone instruction in science and social studies," Wei said.

Instead of 25-30 students at each of two sites and four teachers total, there will be roughly 60 students taught by the same number of teachers at one site.

Furthermore, in addition to an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) instructor, the teachers for math, science, and social studies would have linguistics training. With such training, Wei explained, teachers are better able to help students overcome common obstacles to attaining the level of English proficiency necessary for academic success.

“There’s a lot of hope for this program,” Wei said.

Although Miguel Andrade, the youth organizer at JUNTOS, was impressed by what he saw in Allentown, he raised one lingering concern.

“It seems like [the Newcomer Academy] is something that can work,” Andrade said. “But we want to make sure that Franklin doesn’t become the only school to work with immigrants. We want to make sure that all the schools in the district are prepared to and capable of working with immigrant students.”

Willie Colon is a freelance writer who writes frequently for the Notebook on issues relating to immigrant and ELL students.

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