Superintendent William Hite joined City Council members and advocates at Woodrow Wilson Middle School in Northeast Philadelphia to celebrate the hiring of new staff for English learners and the expansion of services for immigrant students and families across the District.
“Diversity is our strength,” Hite said. “We will always celebrate the differences of our young people and their families and ensure members of our school communities have the opportunity and the right to access a free public education that develops their fullest potential.”
The District’s population of English learners has grown to more than 14,000 students, speaking 126 languages. And 14 percent of all Philadelphians are immigrants.
“Real investment in language access and multilingual supports for students and families is critical for the success of Philadelphia’s school community,” said City Council member Maria Quinones-Sanchez. “We all benefit from the cultural richness and diversity that new Philadelphians bring to our city, and no child or parent should be unable to access our education system due to a language barrier.”
City Council member Helen Gym applauded the District’s hiring of new staff and thanked the advocacy organizations that worked with the Council and the District to come up with priorities: Africom, Juntos, Vietlead, Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, Asian Americans United, Youth United for Change, the Working Educators caucus and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
“This is the first new substantial investment in staffing for English language learners since major service cuts in 2011,” Gym said, referring to budget cuts made during the administration of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett. “Philadelphia’s fast-growing immigrant population is repopulating our neighborhoods, it’s revitalizing our public schools, and it’s critical that we service our children well. Schools are the first line of support for all of these families.”
This year, the District added 10 full-time teachers for students learning English, bringing the total to 288 across the District. It will also be hiring 16 new bilingual counseling assistants — an increase of more than 20 percent over last year.
Woodrow Wilson school, where Hite and members of Council toured classrooms, is no stranger to the needs of English learners.
“Wilson Middle School is a multilingual school with over 40 different languages, including Portuguese, Spanish, Arabic, Bengali, Urdu, Pashto and Chinese,” said principal Stefanie Ressler. “On any given day at Wilson, you will observe ESOL teachers working to academically support our students individually, in small groups, or within regular education classes, while the bilingual counseling assistants are supporting students and their families with a smooth transition into our school and within the community.”
In a 6th-grade math classroom with mostly fluent English speakers, the main teacher circulated among clusters of desks where students worked in small groups on different tasks. At another group, four students worked with a teacher of English learners. Two of them spoke Spanish, like their teacher, and the other two were assisted by a Bengali-speaking translator. This is known as the “pull-in” method, where more advanced English learners are integrated into classes with students who speak English as a first language.
Councilwoman Cherelle Parker, who represents the Ninth District that includes Wilson, spoke of the area as “the United Nations of all council districts” because of its diversity.
“The services that are coming here, they are not just going to impact the children,” Parker said. “I’m a former English as a Second Language teacher. I taught immigrant children and adults, and I will dare say to you that when our children get empowered, it assists the families functioning on a daily basis. … They can become advocates and spokespeople for their families.”
In a “pull-out” classroom, the two levels of English learners with the least fluency learn together in a small class dedicated to learning English. Unlike the pull-in classroom, this group included students from grades 6-8. As a group, they discussed the precise way to use specific words and the relationships between different words, such as “problem” and “solution.” Once English learners reach the third level of English proficiency, they enter the pull-in classrooms, where they learn alongside students fluent in English.
“When I first came to Wilson in September of 2015, I was awestruck by the diversity of the ESOL population and by the determination of the students to learn and prosper,” said Melissa Denowski, a teacher of English learners. “Last year, with the help of a refugee resettlement agency, we offered a support group for our Syrian students. Our next goal is to develop a program that includes the parents of ESOL students as well.”
Gym described a town hall session that she hosted last year with several other Council members, including Sanchez, Mark Squilla and Jannie Blackwell, at the Community College of Philadelphia. Immigrant students and their families were invited to give the District feedback on their experiences with services for English learners.
“They were talking about students falling through the cracks, about struggles to get services in schools, about bullying and harassment,” Gym said. “We stood together and we did something together with our advocates, and that message, that collaboration, that partnership, is the way in which we create a common vision, find the resources, and share the knowledge that we need to move ahead even when times are difficult.”
The school’s Arabic-speaking bilingual counseling assistant, Elkhattab Elhassan, translated the speech of, Luai Alatmah, a Syrian immigrant who came to Philadelphia one year ago and is the father of two students at Wilson and one at Northeast High School. His son is in grade 7 and his daughter in grade 8.
“This is one of the best schools of all the schools in this area,” he said. “We came from a place where we don’t speak English — that’s obvious; I can’t speak English right now. But with the help of God and of the school, my children are speaking English fluently right now!” he said with a gigantic smile. “I brought a seed from my country here, and it is growing.”
He thanked the school, Hite, and the District.
“I’m glad to hear that your young people are learning English and they’re already fluent,” Hite said, “and I want them to remain fluent in their home language as well.”
In addition to the recent hires, the District is working on hiring seven new bilingual psychologists. The District has doubled the enrollment in the federally funded Immigrant Children and Youth Summer Program and opened new sites for the program at Francis Scott Key and Gilbert Spruance Elementary Schools. It also created a toolkit to teach immigrant families their rights and began professional development for principals on best practices to ensure that the rights of immigrant families are protected.
Wei Chen, the civic engagement coordinator for Asian Americans United, enrolled at South Philadelphia High School when he immigrated to the United States at age 16. He did not speak a word of English.
“My ESOL teacher spent so much time and so much capacity to help us to learn English. But they are struggling with limited resources and a big population,” Chen said.
“I appreciate the hard work that Helen, City Council, and the School District put in for the town hall meeting. That was significant for many families because often we cannot access the School District or City Council" because of the need for photo ID, he said. “I hope the town halls with City Council will continue to happen more often in different neighborhoods so people have more access to speak about their own issues.
“We will continue working with the School District to improve the services. There’s more we can do. For example, the School District now can do more about the translation service [on the new website] instead of just using Google translation,” Chen said, laughing, as Hite smiled and nodded. “I was a school violence victim. Now I am able to step up as a community organizer with my young people, advocate for them, and bring up an issue to make a change.”