Equity and English Learners

School District of Philadelphia Board of Education Action Meeting Written Testimony

November 17, 2022

by Dr. Cheri Micheau, Community Member and EL Advocate

I have spoken or written many times recently on the need for stakeholders to hear—- at Action Meetings— from the various offices at 440.  Each office has a responsibility to report out on their ongoing work, goals, and progress, so that they are held accountable by the SDP and by taxpayers.  This week my focus is on the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (ODEI) and their work in addressing the equity needs of English Learners and their immigrant families.

Part of any English Learner advocate’s work is ensuring that ELs are treated equitably——in every sense of the word—- throughout the SDP.  English Learners, and many other Philadelphia students, are impacted by such inequitable conditions as unfair high school admissions policies, lack of access to AP courses, uneven quality of various neighborhood schools, low graduation and high drop-out rates, inadequacy of family outreach, and lack of access to high-quality instruction, including legally-mandated ESOL instruction for ELs, and many more.  

I often wonder whether “equity” is far too narrowly defined by the SDP and by its Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to meet many students’ needs, and in particular, the needs of English Learners and their families.

Equity includes not only the very important fight for racial equity.  We know that the population of ELs in the SDP is racially diverse, with Hispanic and Asian students predominating in number, but with students from a number of African, Caribbean, Eastern European, and Middle Eastern countries adding to the racial richness of Philadelphia’s student population.  These racial groups need advocates in ODEI to ensure that they are represented in all discussions.

The concept of equity also involves cultural equity.  This requires, for example, equitable treatment of and accommodations for students and families from diverse cultural backgrounds.  It is important to emphasize, however, that the concept goes far beyond “International Friday” celebrations to encompass meaningful, deep and ongoing integration of multiple cultural perspectives in daily interactions in each classroom and in each school, and in administrative offices making decisions on curriculum and programs.  It involves sincere efforts at helping all students and staff understand and appreciate how cultural perspectives impact our daily interpersonal encounters, goal setting, and attitudes toward challenges and opportunities.

Complementing the struggle for racial and cultural equity must be linguistic equity:  In a linguistically equitable school district we would celebrate our students’ and students’ families’ multilingualism as an amazing resource and would make every effort to welcome multilingual family and community members into schools to share those resources. We would encourage students to use their strong first-language knowledge to enhance their English learning; classroom teachers would not ban the use of the first language, where it could enrich content learning. We would fully fund and deploy bilingual counseling assistants to assist linguistically diverse students and to serve as liaisons between schools and families.  We would make sure that families’ languages are considered when planning school meetings and school-family communication. We would design and implement bilingual programs, where the numbers in individual schools are sufficient to support such programs, and we would design and implement effective world language programs for English-speaking students to expand their own linguistic resources.  

In addition, in the name of linguistic equity we would critically evaluate and question any attempt—-disguised as “equity”— to “include” (or, better, submerge) newcomer English Learners with no appropriate accommodations in a “regular” classroom and to deprive them of their legal right to specific ESOL services and to truly comprehensible content instruction.  “Equality” might dictate that all students be included in regular classrooms and be exposed to grade-level content, from their first day in the country.  We know that “equity” dictates that we consider the diverse needs of various learners and provide the most effective options.

Not to be forgotten in this equity discussion are students with diverse learning needs, students with diverse gender identities, students with a variety of family and housing situations, and many more.  All of these groups also contain English Learners and their families.

I am always disappointed, in reading about various new SDP policies and initiatives, that English Learners are either totally absent or a superficial afterthought, rather than an integral part of the SDP’s thinking. I would appreciate hearing from the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion about the issue of equity—-in all its forms—-as it touches English Learners and their families.  What is their vision for advocating for these learners?   Does that Office employ one or more staff members from immigrant groups represented in the SDP, so that these diverse types of equity are considered?  Having perused the website of this office, it appears that there is a strong emphasis on absolutely essential racial equity goals, but very little attention to these other needs.