July 1 — 12:04 pm, 2004

Officials promise change as report highlights flaws in ELL programs

The Philadelphia School District educates over one-third of Pennsylvania’s English Language Learner (ELL) students, and according to what some are calling the first major independent evaluation of the ELL program here, the District lacks a consistent strategy for serving these 13,000 students well.

The District’s programs are now under scrutiny as an outgrowth of a lawsuit brought in 1985 by the Education Law Center on behalf of a group of Asian students with limited proficiency in English. A 2001 settlement in that case requires the District to “provide equitable services to learners of English in accordance with academic standards” and to assemble an independent panel of experts to evaluate its ELL program every three years.

Recently obtained by the Notebook, the May 2004 final evaluation report of the District’s ELL program – researched and written by a group of four nationally recognized education experts – includes several key findings:

  • Many teachers serving ELL students have no professional training in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) instruction.
  • Overcrowded classrooms limit their ability to provide necessary, individualized instruction for ELL students.
  • There is no standardized ESOL/bilingual curriculum in place across the District.
  • Low expectations of ELL students are common with little emphasis on “cognitively demanding activities” in the classroom.
  • While leadership is strong at some individual schools, there is no clear districtwide guidance on how to implement ESOL programs.
  • Parental involvement at schools with ESOL and bilingual programs is inconsistent and varies from school to school.

Education Law Center Director Len Rieser – who has represented plaintiffs of the class action case for the past 19 years – said he hopes the report will spur the District to create a clear plan for improving its ELL program.

Rieser said it is disheartening that despite all the new reforms taking place in the District over the past two years, “There’s a group of students who are still not part of that process of reform.”

Margaret Chin, chief officer of the Office of Language, Culture, and Arts (OLCA), which oversees ELL programs, said the District does now have a plan to improve its ELL services, but the panelists’ findings in the report don’t account for that.

“What they see is the ‘before’, and what we’re doing is the ‘after’,” said Chin.

These efforts include spending $1.5 million on new textbooks, plans to roll out a new K-5 ESOL curriculum districtwide, and intensive professional development for teachers, principals, and regional superintendents, Chin said.

The evaluation report – which includes 37 specific recommendations on how to improve services to ELL students – states the District should create a strategic plan for moving upon the recommendations by no later than July 2005.

OLCA officials said the School Reform Commission is slated to vote this month on a new comprehensive districtwide policy that addresses the concerns raised in the report.

Mary Lou McCloskey – a co-author of the report who has conducted extensive research on ESOL programs – said she is optimistic the District’s new ELL policy will hold people “accountable for making sure these kids are served appropriately.”

But she cautioned: “You have to have the practices in place that support the policy.”

For more information, contact the Education Law Center at 215-238-6970 or lrieser@elc-pa.org.

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