SRC hears about struggle to maintain continuity in ELL programs
At a School Reform Commission meeting Monday night, officials said they would do their best to avoid further cuts in programs for the District's 13,000 English language learners.
By devoting an entire two-hour meeting to the topic, the SRC signaled its commitment to prioritize this large but often-neglected segment of the District's population.
But officials also acknowledged that teacher layoffs and other budget-related decisions have taken a toll on these programs over the years.
The only special academic intervention that most ELL students receive is ESOL instruction – meaning their language arts class is English for Speakers of Other Languages.
District staff pointed to research showing that students who get additional services, including transitional bilingual education and "sheltered instruction" (in which students learn their core subjects from teachers specially trained to work with non-native English speakers) have better attendance and do better academically. But these programs are limited. Transitional bilingual education is only in four schools.
The District is cutting back its two Newcomer Learning Academies to one, which they said would serve the same number of students and have a wider range of course offerings.
"We need to figure out the systems that need to be put in place to insure programs are sustained over time," said Deborah Wei, director of multilingual curriculum and programs. "It is easy for programs to drop off the table; all it takes is one staff change."
She said that if schools were truly set up to serve immigrants, "programs wouldn't disappear."
This is still a problem even though for nearly 30 years, Philadelphia has been under a consent degree stemming from a court case to provide the proper services to non-English-speaking students. Its compliance is still subject to monitoring.
Wei also said that ESOL teachers were hit by recent teacher layoffs. Pennsylvania does not have a separate ESOL certification, so teachers who are trained in ESOL were laid off based on seniority in their official certifications.
Other issues that surfaced at the meeting:
Materials and notices regarding special education services are not available in several languages, nor are translators available for parent conferences.
The District does not employ any speakers of some African and Caribbean languages, inluding Creole and Mandinka. There are large African and Caribbean communities in West and Southwest Philadelphia. Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who represents this area, also asked about this issue Tuesday at a City Council hearing on education.
Some charter schools were set up to serve immigrant students, but among the rest, only 1 percent of students get ELL services.
Many counselors are not trained to help undocumented students understand their college and postseconday options.
SRC members said school leadership was the key – high-performing schools had high-performing ELL students. Yet Furness High School principal Timothy McKenna was recently tapped to lead Central High School without a replacement being named. Activists from Asian Americans United said that this now puts the progress Furness has made with its immigrant students, and the continued existence of the school itself, in jeopardy.