Bilingual Counseling Assistants (BCAs), Cellphones in Class

Written testimony for School District of Philadelphia Board of Education Action Meeting

October 20, 2022

by Dr. Cheri Micheau, Retired ESOL teacher, university teacher educator, ESOL manager, English Learner advocate, taxpayer

I wanted to comment on several important issues that the Board should consider:

A.I am currently volunteering at a high school that has many English Learners, a number of them newcomers, from Spanish-speaking countries.  Last year there was a Spanish-speaking bilingual counseling assistant (BCA) at that school one day a week.  This year there is no Spanish-speaking BCA.  Apparently to qualify for a once-a-week BCA, schools need 55 students of one language background.  In calculating the BCA allocation, there is no consideration of students’ language proficiency level, time in the country of the students and their families, or experience and capacity of the school in addressing these students’ needs.  I understand also that there are many unfilled BCA positions this year, due not in small part to the very low starting salary, $24,000.   There is no question that the SDP budget for BCAs must be increased significantly in order to attract and retain qualified BCAs.  This underfunding of BCAs is just one more piece of evidence of the lack of interest by the SDP in English Learners and their families, a concern that I have voiced many times in recent years.

BCAs are essential in every school with ELs, and they perform many important tasks.  For example, they are charged with contacting families about students’ progress and behavior in school, upcoming special school events such as parents’ night or visits by colleges, and important requirements in the school, such as testing or health exams. In addition, they confer with students directly when referred by a teacher, and they communicate with teachers on individual students’ needs and concerns.  BCAs are not instructional aides, but they do assist classroom teachers in explaining, in students’ native languages, assignments or projects, as requested.  Very importantly, they provide teachers with cultural insights on cultural and educational practices in students’ home countries that may influence their behaviors in their U.S. classrooms and their and their families’ attitudes toward education.  The BCA is also able to identify learning challenges or emotional upheaval——by communicating in the student’s first language—-that interaction in English with teachers might not reveal.

Many of the students at the school where I volunteer come from limited educational backgrounds, some are living on their own, most are working many hours outside of school;  too many of these students have suffered significant trauma.  They clearly face overwhelming academic, social, psychological and linguistic challenges that impact their success in school.  These personal challenges lead to unhelpful behaviors of students:  too many are unengaged in their classes, cutting class, leaving school early, and generally just “putting in time” at school.  While a BCA cannot solve all of those serious problems, s/he would be able to notify parents about the problems that teachers are observing and to interpret during parent meetings; the BCA will be essential in any school-wide committees or meetings in which students’ issues are discussed, including in IEP or disciplinary meetings.

Of course, it should be emphasized that the problems faced by these English Learners —-and English Learners at many Philadelphia schools——-should be addressed not only by teachers and BCAs, but also by school administrators, OMCP staff, and network leaders.  Much more action is needed to avert a crisis of drop outs, inadequate preparation for college or career, and lack of safety  for these, and all, learners.

B.  One issue that affects academic performance and classroom engagement, not only for English Learners, but for almost every student at the school where I volunteer, is the use of cellphones during class.  Despite the best efforts of the best teachers, cellphones are everywhere. Students are texting their friends and receiving texts, videotaping themselves, taking and sending selfies, listening to music, making and receiving phone calls, watching videos, among many distracting behaviors.  In order to talk to the students, one must ask them to remove their ear buds——so, apparently, they don’t hear a word that the teacher says during most of the class.  

I am strongly in favor of any effort by the Board to stop cellphone use in schools, including the proposal for the special sealed magnetic pouches for phones.  

English Learners make extensive use of their phones for translation, but despite this important use, they are equally distracted by the “fun” aspects of their phone.  They could resort to using a traditional dictionary or their laptop for necessary translation, and, frankly, the students are too reliant on their phones to translate, rather than using their developing English to express themselves in their second language.  Translation is actually preventing students, in some cases, from practicing English.   

I understand from a newspaper article that some schools have already implemented the “no cellphone” policy with success, and I also understand that there might be some ways for students to disable these pouches, but it is really worth trying.  I left the classroom before the explosion of cellphones; I can’t even imagine trying to compete with cellphones for students’ attention. There are enough challenges that teachers face in helping students learn. Can we please eliminate phones?