The Education Law Center receives hundreds of calls from families and students through its Helpline and engages in conversations with advocates, student and parent groups, teachers, and others – many of whom have raised significant concerns regarding the provision of services to the School District of Philadelphia’s immigrant students. The following is a summary of issues we commonly hear about from families and some proposed recommendations:
At the outset, it is important to recognize that many immigrant students are not only learning English for the first time, they are also “learning how to learn” in a formal setting. They are new to American culture and our education system. Many of these children and youth are “students with limited or interrupted formal schooling” – they may not have gone to school previously or may have grown up in refugee camps. And many have been severely impacted by the trauma of war, famine, discrimination, and fear. They take all of this with them into their schools and classrooms. In addition, many of their parents do not speak English proficiently and have few supports to navigate the education system and their new environment. They are also impacted by trauma and fear. These students and their parents need additional supports in school that other students may not.
First, we repeatedly hear that the District does not provide sufficient translation and interpretation services to permit immigrant parents and students to engage in schools. We recommend that the District adopt clear policies and provide sufficient services, staffing, and resources in all schools – including an adequate number of Bilingual Counseling Assistants to serve all students and families.
The District should also examine policies and practices that hinder equal access for parents and students. One example is the use of an online school selection process that parents with limited English proficiency are unable to navigate. Another is a lack of interpretation services for the District’s bullying hotline. In addition, many important documents are never translated for parents – such as hearing notifications regarding a proposed transfer to a discipline program or notices that a child has been suspended.
In particular, parents of students with disabilities who are also English learners (ELs) are entitled to meaningful participation in the special education process, but they are denied this right when special education documents are not translated and interpreters do not provide comprehensive interpretation services at meetings where participants develop Individual Education Plans for students. The Education Law Center, along with the Public Interest Law Center, has filed a class-action federal lawsuit to challenge this failure, and the court recently ruled that this case will move forward. We want to work with the District to ensure this legal protection for parents and students.
In addition, District personnel must work to eliminate the myth that EL students must “wait two years” before being evaluated for special education services. In some schools, parents are turned away when they raise concerns or are told to wait to see if the child has a language problem or a learning problem.
Regarding academics, test results indicate that immigrant students and ELs are among the most educationally at-risk of all student groups. They need robust language-service programs to change this narrative. For instance, in 2015-16, 44 percent of EL students scored below basic on standardized math and reading tests, but just 19 percent of non-EL students were in that category.
We need to provide comprehensive bilingual or English as a Second Language (ESOL) programming and adopt District-wide policies and standards to make sure they are effective. Currently, there is wide variability among schools in programming for EL and immigrant students. For instance, in some schools, students get only 30 minutes of ESOL a day, regardless of proficiency levels, and schools with only a few ELs get only tutoring or meet with an itinerant teacher just once or twice a week. Bilingual programs and “sheltered classes,” which are commonly used as a method for teaching content to immigrant students who are at lower levels of English proficiency, are effective only in schools where they are properly implemented.
And all regular education teachers should be trained to modify instruction so immigrant students can access course content and learn to be culturally competent. At present, training is minimal or nonexistent for many teachers.
Regarding ESOL/bilingual teachers, there are wide disparities in their qualifications, their numbers are insufficient, and they are often pulled away to substitute in other classrooms. The District must increase and track the number of hours of ESOL instruction provided to students to meet state guidelines. This is a particular problem for “Entering” Level I immigrant students who need an intensive two-and-a-half-hours of ESOL a day and almost never receive it. In the absence of this intense support, they are not able to make significant progress.
The District should expand newcomer programming at all levels for our newly arrived language learners – in elementary, the middle and high schools. At present, only one high school, Franklin Learning Center, offers a high school newcomer program and students placed there can be forced out after one or two years. We need more programs to target newly arrived immigrant students – these programs provide sheltered instruction, intensive English language programs, and literacy skills in a context that introduces students to formal education and American culture. We support a four-year program designed to address these students' needs.
While immigrant students need more targeted supports and additional help to navigate the school environment, they are particularly vulnerable to budget cuts that result in high teacher-student ratios, overcrowded classrooms, fewer ESOL and BCA staff, and the reduction of remedial and other support services. Many of them report being bullied, and the elimination of hall monitors and many assistant principals clearly undermines a positive school climate and exacerbates incidents of conflict. Students and staff need to understand and embrace our immigrant students. This requires a District-wide approach to improving cultural competency.
We recommend using new targeted federal funding under the Every Student Succeeds Act for trauma-informed training for teachers, staff, and peers to understand the impact of trauma for immigrant students. Federal Title III funds can be used to support afterschool programs, supplementary materials, and expanded summer school programs targeted to their needs. And the District should invest in new curriculum materials designed for immigrant students with limited or interrupted formal schooling.
Immigrant students are also shut out of many Career and Technical Education and “twilight” programs because there are no language supports for them there. And the high school application process is fundamentally unfair to ELLs who have recently arrived. ELL students are barely represented in these schools as parents are unable to navigate the process, are not informed of available waivers for standardized tests, etc., and have little support in the process. Students with great academic potential but limited English or no standardized test scores are unlikely to be admitted to special-admission schools.
The target under the consent decree in the LeGare case and under School Reform Commission policy is to enroll 7 percent of EL students in special admission schools. But this never happens. For example, last year when 9.52 percent of District students were ELs, Masterman reported 0 percent ELL students, and Central reported 0.94 percent ELL students. We believe that the process can be made more accessible to immigrant families and that efforts must be undertaken to do so.
By focusing on these issues as priorities – providing a rigorous content-based curriculum and effective language instruction with targeted programming for newly arrived immigrant students, ensuring meaningful parent and student participation, and improving school climate – our immigrant students can and do thrive.
Maura McInerney is senior attorney at the Education Law Center, a nonprofit organization that advocates for educationally at-risk children. This commentary is adapted from her testimony before a Town Hall meeting Tuesday night on the needs of immigrant students. It was co-sponsored by City Councilwoman Helen Gym and the School District.