English Learner Issues Ignored by the School District of Philadelphia

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

December 15, 2022

by Dr. Cheri Micheau, Former ESOL Teacher, OMCP Manager and Post-secondary Teacher Educator

There are several English Learner issues that continue to be ignored by the School District of Philadelphia, despite frequent testimony from my colleagues and me.   Following is a list of concerns, all of which have been introduced multiple times, but have never been seriously addressed by the Board:

  1. Newcomer programs:  I understand that there is no plan to place newcomer programs in one or more middle and high schools next fall. Another year could go by without any meaningful effort to address a population that is not succeeding. There has been a need for many years for effectively planned and implemented newcomer programs—-indeed, a newcomer/international high school and middle school—-and there seems to be little will to move forward.  Why?  A number of new high school programs have been initiated in these past ten years; more and more dual language programs are being added; entire new high schools have been opened….and yet, newcomers continue to receive only very substandard services.  Many excuses have been offered, including a concern that a newcomer program is “segregationist,” but in the SDP’s focus on equity, newcomers deserve a program that effectively meets their needs——that is equity, and this is legally required by law and legal decisions on English Learner education.  As noted many times, the current newcomer program suffers from a lack of autonomy in rostering, unfortunate staffing decisions, apparent lack of support by administrators for developing an innovative program, and a lack of appropriate curriculum to move newcomers forward.
  2. Graduation:  It is concerning that absolute newcomers can graduate from high school within their first year in the U.S. despite very limited English; newcomer students with extremely limited English can arrive in February or March and still graduate because of the overly generous awarding of credits from their home countries—-an attempt to beef up graduation numbers at ELs’ expense.  For those who want to go on to college, this lack of time to learn English and inadequate language and content instruction will result in their having to pay tuition for remedial classes.
  3. BCAs:  There is a lack of sufficient BCA support in many schools because of staffing challenges caused, at least in part, by very low salary for a position that is so essential in a school with English Learners.  Surprisingly, there is no consideration of BCAs’ educational background in the salary structure; a BCA applicant with a Master’s degree would be paid the same as a high school graduate.  Also, there is no consideration of how new a school is to ELs and their families in assigning BCAs; a school that is suddenly and unexpectedly flooded with newcomers should receive significant BCA support in their first years working with this population, even if the total number is lower than the “required minimum number” for a school to receive a BCA.  In other words, the assignment of BCAs should be done by considering context, as well as pure numbers.
  4. PD:  We have spoken about the lack of meaningful professional development that addresses the needs of English Learners beyond QTEL training, and the lack of strong support—-and even a strong push— for teachers to attend QTEL. This includes the lack of second language-specific PD for ESOL teachers and also lack of PD that introduces ELs’ needs (in areas such as curriculum or assessment or a specific content area) in more than a single Power Point slide.  In my opinion, the “one Power Point slide” approach to addressing English Learners’ needs is symbolic of how the District sees, and undervalues,  ELs and their families:  Mention them, but never really meaningfully and deeply respond to their needs.   
  5. Policy 138:  Policy 138 for English Learners and dual language students makes a lot of promises for English Learners, but there is no apparent attempt to hold the SDP accountable for actually implementing that policy.  Why does the Board not require various offices to report on how they are implementing their policies, to highlight their successes and to outline plans for addressing failures?
  6. Guidelines:  It is imperative that principals be informed, and frequently reminded, of certain procedures and guidelines related to English Learners and their families; and principals’ supervisors need to hold them accountable for following these guidelines.  For example:  1. It is legally required that a fully trained and qualified interpreter be present at any IEP meeting; it is not sufficient to use a random teacher, parent, community member, or other school staff member for this purpose.  If a BCA is unavailable, the best option is using Language Line, since those interpreters are highly qualified and (we hope) objective.  2.  English Learners should be clustered into as few elementary classrooms per grade as possible, so that ESOL teachers are better able to coordinate with their classroom teachers and to push in and/or pull out to reinforce what is actually happening in the classroom.  If an ESOL teacher is faced with supporting many, many different classrooms, it becomes impossible to provide targeted and effective second language support.  3.  ESOL teachers should never be pulled from ESOL instruction to serve as interpreters; this is especially problematic, since students are thus being deprived of their legally mandated ESOL time.  ESOL teachers may be deployed as substitutes, but only in the rotation in which all teachers are called upon to sub; ESOL instruction is legally mandated, after all, and should not be a “throw-away” class.   4.  Where feasible, all communication with families should be carried out in the families’ preferred languages. While the translation office cannot always help with daily communication and not every school has a BCA for every language, there are multiple resources that can be employed for communicating with families, such as Language Line and Google Translate—-the latter not perfect, but better than an all-English approach.