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Warm words and good intentions not enough to improve immigrant students' education

District lacks leadership, vision for EL education
  • teachers and students at immigrant forum full
    Caucus of Working Educators




The School District of Philadelphia has gotten some positive press recently around the education of immigrant students.  In a series of articles in the Notebook last fall, people from the District's central office praised as successful a program for English Learners (ELs) at Northeast High School. 

At a recent diversity forum for parents at District headquarters, District officials reaffirmed their commitment to the safety of all students and acknowledged the assets that our immigrant students and their families bring to the District. 

And when District students eloquently made pleas for protection from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement actions at a recent School Reform Commission meeting, officials assured them that the District will, indeed, protect all students at their schools.  And at a community forum hosted by Councilwoman Helen Gym, School Superintendent Dr. William Hite promised to address some of the concerns voiced by students and parents. 

These are all encouraging signs, and families may have been left with the impression that the District is doing all it can to meet the specific needs of immigrant students.  If warm words were enough, ELs would be celebrating.

But these same meetings and articles featured individuals who highlighted challenges that ELs in the Philadelphia schools continue to face---challenges in receiving effective instruction and appropriate language support, and challenges in being treated fairly according to the law. 

Cathi Tillman, the director of La Puerta Abierta, told those at the community forum that her clients, unaccompanied minors, regard learning English and succeeding in school as the key to their futures. But, Tillman said, they worry that their current educational programs might not help them realize these goals.  

At the SRC meeting, student Boris Zhinin noted that ELs do not have equal access to selective high schools and are even prevented from applying by counselors who don’t think they can succeed due to limited English skills.  Another student, Kawsareth Razaki, testified to the SRC about the need for more specialized services in high school, such as EL-dedicated counselors and teachers trained to work with English learners.  Student speakers at the community forum urged the District to add more bilingual counseling assistants and ESOL teachers.  In other words, instruction and equal access loom large in the minds of ELs and their families. 

The many comments and questions during these meetings cut to the heart of concerns that all education advocates for ELs in Philadelphia share:  Very specifically, what steps are being taken by the School District of Philadelphia to improve instructional services to ELs?  What is the long-term vision of the District to promote ELs’ academic achievement and social and cultural well-being?  Is the District planning to implement the types of innovative EL instructional programs implemented in other cities, such as newcomer high schools? How do ELs fit into the vision of a great school for every child?  Self-congratulation and empty statements do nothing to further the cause of equal access to quality education for ELLs in Philadelphia.  They ring hollow -- just words, and no actions.

There does not appear to be anyone in the leadership of the District who considers, worries about or seeks action to improve EL education to the extent necessary to move students forward.  In years past we have had leaders in the central administration and in the Multilingual Office who had the knowledge, the experience, and the conviction -- and passion for ELs  -- that translated into tireless advocacy. But there appears to be no one taking on that role in the current administration. 

I have been unable to find a published long-term vision for moving forward, for innovating, and for addressing the many flaws in current EL educational programs.  ELs do not seem to be part of the conversation in setting district-wide anchor goals or in creating, funding, and carefully planning innovative programs in the city.  It seems that the District does not include considerations of ELs in crafting new educational policies, even though the special needs of ELs challenge schools in implementing such new policies.  Special education guidelines discussed at recent SRC meetings, for example, must include specific consideration of English learners' rights and needs.  The high school application process must address the many inequities suffered by ELs whose limited English hinders them from accessing high-quality high schools.  When new literacy materials are ordered for every teacher in the District, ESOL teachers, too, need to have access to those materials and to the training that accompanies them.  Where are the actions, policies, and programs that would translate the cheery words of District administrators into concrete improvements in instruction and program delivery for our students?

To be clear, there are hundreds of very dedicated and passionate ESOL teachers, EL-friendly teachers, principals, curriculum specialists in ESOL and bilingual education, bilingual counseling assistants, and multilingual field staff who work every day to provide the best support they can, given the limited resources and lukewarm direction from the central office.  In fact, a number of these dedicated professionals move forward despite the District's foot-dragging.  But this neglect takes its toll.  Some principals lack experience and education in the needs of ELs and are often left unguided to make decisions, with disastrous results in some cases. New, inexperienced ESOL teachers are being hired but not supported by central office initiatives -- they are left to learn by trial and error.  ESOL teachers and counselors struggle to assist middle-school English learners in applying for high schools, with little to no central-office support.  And absent the kind of research-based and carefully designed instructional guidance from the central office, teachers and administrators at individual schools design their own instructional programs for ELs, sometimes depriving those students of opportunities to learn and progress.

As some readers may be aware, the District was sued in the 1980s because non-English-speaking parents were not informed sufficiently, and in a language they could understand, about their child’s special education needs.  The Y.S. case initiated a very innovative time in the District, when the office for English learners designed a program model for them that experimented with promising ways of more effectively delivering instruction around the city.  There was extensive professional development for content and ESOL teachers on cross-curricular instructional design and sheltered content instruction.  There was an attempt to include principals in professional development, so that their support of the ESOL program could be enhanced.  The central office clearly supported these efforts, cheered on by the watchful eye of the Education Law Center, which administered the Y.S. consent degree.

District personnel participated in a Pennsylvania ELL Task Force made up of representatives from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, school districts, higher education, and community organizations, and that task force served as a watchdog on EL issues, as well. Although the results from these many efforts were not perfect, this was an encouraging time to work with EL educators in the District.  Little did we know then that more than thirty years later, things would have regressed significantly from that time of innovation and collaboration among professionals working for ELs.

As advocates for ELs, we need to reach out to the communities of ELs and their families around the city. Parents of ELs want to become engaged, and we need to help them understand the injustice being perpetrated against their children.  They deserve to know what types of services their children are legally entitled to -- high-quality, appropriate, and carefully designed services -- and made to understand that inadequate programs are being foisted on their children.  They deserve to know that Title III funding is available for such much-needed resources as after-school programs -- a request made by a number of speakers at the recent community forum -- summer school, or supplementary instructional materials for ELs.  They need to know that the funds are not being fully used.  More could be done, with effort from the central office.  The funding is there; budgetary problems are no excuse for inaction.

Parents and community members need to know, so that they can be outraged, and so that they can demand action from the District.  I invite advocates for immigrant students to help me spread the word to EL families and community groups working with those families.  We need more community meetings so that we can meet with parent groups around the city to discuss their concerns about EL education and their children’s educational rights and needs.  We need to share experiences and stories, so that more parents realize the urgency of this situation.  The District has a legal and moral obligation to move beyond flowery language to authentic, sincere, and thoughtful steps to improve educational programs for ELs.  We need to hold the District accountable, and we need to promote progress.  Moving backward is not an option.  From today on we need to organize to pressure the District for change.  Our students are depending on us.

Cheri Micheau has worked in second-language teacher development and advocacy for English Language Learners  for more than 30 years, including in the TESOL Programs at West Chester University and at Penn and in the Office of Multilingual Curriculum and Programs for the School District of Philadelphia, from which she recently retired.  Her special interest is in developing programs, materials, literacy teaching techniques and professional development sessions for teachers of newcomer learners ​at the secondary level.


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