Jinyan Deng, now a junior at Northeast High School, arrived in the United States from China barely two years ago.
It was a bewildering experience, to say the least. She knew no English. She had no familiarity with the U.S. system of education. She was plunked down in a school with close to 3,000 students.
“The District needs to better support ELL students,” she said, speaking through a translator.
Jinyan was one of 11 young people who testified Thursday at City Council’s annual Student Roundtable. Conducted during budget season, the Roundtable is designed to let Council members hear students talk about what they need the most.
“This is an important time, where your voice matters,” Councilwoman Helen Gym told the students, who filled the Mayor’s Reception Room. “We’re setting budget priorities.”
Several other Council members or their representatives attended, and Mayor Kenney stopped by to congratulate the students on their activism.
“I’m an old guy,” he said. “Before I know it, I’ll be out of here and you guys will be taking over.”
He reiterated his commitment to increasing city funding for the schools and to maintaining Philadelphia as a “sanctuary city” that protects immigrants who may be targets of federal immigration enforcement.
The students who spoke – all of whom were members of organizing groups, including Philadelphia Student Union, Youth United for Change, Asian Americans United, and VietLead – were most concerned about three main issues: mental health services, school policing, and support for immigrants like Jinyan.
They said they would like to phase out school police and increase mental health and immigrant supports by hiring more ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teachers and bilingual counseling assistants.
Jahayd Thomas of Benjamin Franklin High School, where two years ago there was a violent encounter between a student and a school police officer, wants school police to be phased out. He was presenting what has long been a goal of the student organizing groups.
“We should have other school staff who are qualified to support students and handle matters when there are problems,” said Thomas. “If there was a priority on adding these staff to schools, we could decrease how much our District relies on police to keep order.”
Richard Chung, whose family is from Vietnam, grew up in South Philadelphia. A senior at Furness High School in South Philadelphia, he said more counselors and mental health services in schools are essential.
His family struggled, his mom worked all the time, and he said it was easy to become overwhelmed and depressed.
“I think supporting mental health would look like schools having health counselors or teachers checking up on us seeing if everything is all right,” he said. “Another way would be increasing culturally relevant mental health services into classes ... that take into account our histories and everyday struggles, and having more interactive classes, like going outside to garden.”
Jamya Johnson of Bodine High School said students need “schools that are not focused on my grades, but me as a person. ... We don’t just want mental health awareness after a crisis. We want a culture in our schools that helps us maintain good mental health and prosperous human development at all times.”
Three 8th graders from H.A. Brown Elementary School reiterated the call for more services for students who don’t speak English. They were concerned that the number of ESOL teachers would be cut, when more of them are needed.
“We feel that fairness for all second-language students in our school is crucial,” said Justin Casanova.
Tien Huynh, a student at Furness High School, also advocated for more counseling assistants.
The Vietnamese bilingual counseling assistant at Furness “has supported us a lot in our studying, but it wasn’t enough,” said Tien, who has lived in Philadelphia for nearly two years and was also speaking through a translator. “By herself, she couldn’t possibly support all 30-40 Vietnamese students in the school.”
The Furness students told the Council members that, despite the need, the Vietnamese bilingual counseling assistant would only be at Furness next year for one day a week instead of three.
“We will address that,” Gym said.
At Northeast, where Jinyan attends, students speak 60 languages, a fifth are English learners, and half the students have been in EL programs at some point in their lives.
Jinyan urged Council to push the District to hire more BCAs, who help immigrant students and their families navigate the District. Although a school like Northeast has many BCAs, most split their time between several schools and may not be available at the moment when a student like Deng desperately needs help.
When she enrolled, “I did not understand how the school allocated courses, the system of credits, or what a GPA is,” she said. She suggested that BCAs take part in orientation sessions.
Jinyan also ran into a systemic problem in Philadelphia: teacher vacancies and difficulties in finding fully qualified substitutes.
In 10th grade, she said, she was scheduled for three ESOL classes each day, but “there were no formal teachers in two of these classes for nearly half the school year.” Instead, a succession of substitutes handed out worksheets. “As a result, we did not learn English during this period,” she said. She also said she was missing a math teacher for a good part of the year.
Gym said she is “horrified” at the vacancies in major subjects that plague the District each year. Although teacher hiring and filling jobs have improved over past years, at any given time, vacancies can number above 100 and the affected students are at a huge disadvantage.
“I don’t understand how they are happening,” Gym said. “These are major subject areas, in which you are tested for exams.” That subject is likely to be a major point of discussion when District officials defend their budget before City Council.
“You have to make a stink about it,” Gym told the students. "Nobody is paying attention if the School District is not hearing from you.”
Superintendent William Hite said in an interview after Thursday’s School Reform Commission meeting that the District was adding 18 BCAs in next year’s budget to the 70 or so that are now in the District.
If a BCA’s time in a school is being cut, that is a school-based decision. Furness, for instance, has students who speak many different languages, and all of them need BCAs.
On safety issues, Hite said: “We now have more counselors than school police,” which was not true as recently as a year ago. Counselor positions that were eliminated during the worst of the District downsizing amid huge state funding cuts under former Gov. Tom Corbett have gradually been added back. But students say that more are needed.
Hite said he doesn’t see a scenario in which school police are phased out, another of the student demands. Participants in Wednesday’s walkout in the wake of the Parkland school shooting made the same demand.
“I’ve always talked about expanding the role of school safety officers,” he said. “I would like to see them advise and mentor students,” rather than arrest them.
Gym and the other Council members present, including Mark Squilla, praised the students for speaking out and for offering solutions.
“It’s important to speak,” said Squilla, “and have your concerns heard.”