As the number of immigrant students and others with English-learning needs grows, Philadelphia School District leaders vowed Monday evening not to cut resources for bilingual education and related services despite continuing budget woes.
The School Reform Commission held a nonvoting session to discuss the district's efforts to improve programs for 13,000 "English-language learners," of whom 3,000 are immigrants.
The district has budgeted approximately $35.6 million for around 300 teachers who specialize in English for Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL, said district spokesman Fernando Gallard.
Commissioner Wendell E. Pritchett repeated the district's commitment to ESOL programs, but acknowledged that some schools have faltered "because the principals aren't taking it seriously and aren't held accountable."
He added, "We have a hell of a lot of work to do."
Deborah Wei, director of multilingual curriculum and programs for the district, spoke for about a half hour explaining ESOL programs. She said the data on increases in test scores for some ESOL students were "encouraging." The data also showed that the test scores seemed to track with whether the schools were doing well overall.
Carol Bangura, head of the African Center for Education and Sustainability Inc., said the African immigrant community in Southwest Philadelphia faces many difficulties because of the diversity within its own population.
Some students come from African nations with languages not spoken by anybody in the School District, Bangura said.
Her group contracts with the district to help these students in six schools, but the need is overwhelming, she said. Even though the center was formed to serve African immigrants, it has begun to serve students from China and Vietnam who do not have access to local Asian groups, she said.
"Aside from my agency, that's it," she said.
Immigrant students sometimes benefited from good educations in their native countries, but they also faced culture shock, or added responsibilities in helping their non-English-speaking parents, Wei said. Some students are undocumented immigrants.
Tania Chairez, 19, an organizer with the advocacy group DreamActivist Pennsylvania, said undocumented students face uncertainty and fear because of their status, and that adds to the challenges they face in learning English along while trying to attend math and history classes.
Students most likely will confide to a teacher that they are undocumented, but otherwise, "they're not going to tell most people about it," Chairez said.
"The counselors really don't know what to do with undocumented students," said Chairez, who said she has remained undocumented since she came to the United States with her family when she was 5 years old. Undocumented students can attend college, but they need to know how to apply as international students or how to access private financial aid.