Transcript of the testimony of Cheryl Michael

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Cheri Micheau

I have spoken on a number of occasions about the group of high school-age immigrant students in Philadelphia who have attended only a few years of school or less and have not acquired even the basics of mathematics or literacy in their native languages. These are our SLIFEs (students with limited or interrupted formal schooling).  In recent years, students arriving from violence-torn African and Central American countries, in particular, have taxed the resources of traditional ESOL programs.

It has been clear for years that a different model of instruction is needed, yet little has been done.  There is currently no program in Philadelphia that adequately and appropriately addresses these students’ needs.  There is a single newcomer program, but without any specialized programming for SLIFEs.  We have an innovation network, but there seems to be no interest in innovating to benefit this group.

Three of Dr. Hite’s goals that have garnered much praise at SRC meetings are increasing the graduation rate, helping students prepare for college and career, and “reading by 3rd.”  How do SLIFEs figure in these?  Because of the push to graduate as many students as possible on time, we have SLIFEs being pushed through their high school content courses, earning credits and miraculously graduating, even though they have not developed even basic reading and math skills.  Yes, they count in the graduation numbers, but their prospects for college and career are dim.  Those who may want to pursue college studies will need to seek remedial help, yet colleges are not equipped to instruct students in initial literacy or math skills. Those who may wish to find a job will be limited by their academic gaps.  While the reading by 3rd movement is laudable, little attention is paid to high school-age students still struggling to learn to read, and, unfortunately, few high school teachers are trained to introduce literacy skills.

There are SLIFEs in Philadelphia’s high schools in many parts of the city, and a centrally-located program could benefit many of them.  A SLIFE program can never work, however, if the program must be “retrofitted” into an already existing high school, as is the case with the current newcomer program.  SLIFEs need to attend an autonomous program—-indeed, they need to be part of an autonomous, four-year international high school included in the innovation network—- whose administrators and staff will have the independence to do all of the following:

  1. to select teachers with the unique qualifications required to work with these learners, including training in teaching primary-school-level literacy and math and training in working with second-language learners;
  2. to create a flexible and non-traditional high school schedule that provides sufficient time in larger blocks for the kind of intensive practice required to move the students forward;
  3. to design a coherent program model in which essential skills and concepts are introduced, reviewed, and reinforced in content courses throughout the four years;
  4. to focus in a first-year program on literacy and math only, so that students entering the program with pre-Kindergarten-level skills may progress rapidly in acquiring the requisite foundations;
  5. to develop cross-curricular projects and units that would permit teachers to integrate a wide variety of content-area concepts from the fields of history, math, science, health, English, and the arts;
  6. to assess and grade students in ways that motivate, but also accurately track students’ progress; and
  7. to allow students to take sufficient time—-not to rush through to graduate by 18—-so that they leave school much more college and career ready than is currently the case.

Dr. Hite, I urge you to visit the newcomer program, to meet some of the wonderful SLIFEs studying there, and to talk to the newcomer staff there about these students’ needs.  The students are counting on you!