Meetings on English Learners present a chance to find answers and push for change
Starting this evening, the School District of Philadelphia’s Office of Multilingual Curriculum and Programs will facilitate three meetings about English Learner (EL) education and the policy governing EL education (Policy 138). (The two other meetings will be Sept. 18 and Sept. 26.) At these meetings, parents, students, teachers, and school administrators, community members, and staff from organizations serving immigrants are invited by the District to provide input on services for English Learners. Participants may describe any linguistic, academic or cultural challenges faced by English Learners and their families in the District, offer suggestions for improvement in EL services, and make requests for assistance from the Office of Multilingual Curriculum and Programs (OMCP).
These meetings can serve as a test case of the District and Board of Education’s stated goals of promoting meaningful community participation, more open transparent communication, and public accountability at a time when many advocates feel that these goals are not being met.
In reality, there are few opportunities for authentic two-way conversations between community stakeholders and District administrators or board members. It is true that concerns and suggestions are presented by the public at the board’s action meetings and at their committee meetings focusing on policy, academics, and operations. However, there is no formal process for District staff to report back on how these concerns have been addressed. Nor is there any way for the community to know how the work of various divisions within the administration — often the subject of lengthy presentations at board meetings — is evaluated and by whom these divisions are held accountable.
Regarding the Office of Multilingual Curriculum and Programs, advocates for English Learners and ESOL teachers have complained in recent years that its leaders do not communicate with practitioners and have failed to create an innovative vision for EL education in the city. And we don’t know whether or to what degree the District monitors and evaluates their work. To address this void, the community must step in to demand accountability and to question their practices.
At the Policy 138 meeting last year, attendees provided a wealth of critical comments and suggestions. In addition, a special agenda item at a spring 2019 meeting of the Board of Education’s Student Achievement Committee featured testimony from teachers, parents, students, and advocates for English Learners that echoed some of those same concerns. At those two meetings and at other Board of Education meetings in the last few years, teachers who work with English Learners and advocates for English Learners have described a number of longstanding concerns that require attention:
- The mandate for, the effectiveness of, and the practicalities of implementing “push-in” instruction for ELs, in which they attend regular classes with an ESL teacher instead of being pulled out and taught separately.
- The quality of services for newcomers and students with limited schooling.
- Appropriate materials and curriculum for lower-proficiency English Learners.
- Professional development for content-area teachers who work with English Learners, and the roster assignments of teachers who have received that specialized training.
- Outreach to immigrant families and interpretation and translation services.
- Effective, instructionally themed professional development for ESOL and classroom teachers.
- Reliable and valid procedures for exiting students.
- Legal procedures for assessing English Learners for special education, among many others.
It will not be useful for attendees at the upcoming meetings simply to rehash a list of these same concerns. In addition to sharing new concerns, participants expect to learn what has already been put into place by OMCP to address the problems identified by the community at past meetings. And fundamental questions should be raised:
- What is the mandate of the Office of Multilingual Curriculum and Programs?
- How and how well are OMCP staff serving English Learners, their teachers, and their schools?
- How are they innovating and creating new learning opportunities for ELs?
- How, very specifically, are they addressing new problems as they arise?
- What concrete instructional improvements in EL education have been made?
- What vision does the staff of OMCP have to improve the education of English Learners and outreach to families this year and in the next years?
- How is the team at OMCP being held accountable?
- Who is evaluating the effectiveness of current EL programs and the other work of OMCP?
Each of the meetings has the same focus, but OMCP has located them conveniently in three different corners of the city:
- Tuesday, Sept. 17, at Lincoln High School, Room 106, 5-6:30 p.m.
- Wednesday, Sept. 18, at Kensington Creative & Performing Arts High School, IMC/Library, 5-6:30 p.m.
- Thursday, Sept. 26, at South Philadelphia High School, Room 223, 5-6:30 p.m.
There are many in the community who care about English Learners. Please come out to one of these community meetings to share your vision and to demand answers.
Cheri Micheau is a retired German and ESL teacher, and a teacher educator in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). As a member of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, she has advocated for quality English learner education in Philadelphia.