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School Days III: Educating Immigrants

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By Dale Mezzacappa

The incident at South Philadelphia High School involving violence against Asian students has drawn overdue attention to another important issue: how the school district absorbs and educates its immigrant students.

Like other big cities, the district has long had to deal with immigrants and students who don't speak English. It has not been a pretty picture. Early on, educators had no difficulty equating the lack of ability to speak English with lack of intelligence. Once the need to formally teach English was recognized, the debate on how best to do it has been mired more in politics than the principles of sound language instruction.

Because some students easily learned English without formal instruction, it was assumed for awhile that all students could. English as a Second Language (ESOL) and bilingual instruction are relatively new phenomena on the scene, arriving in the 1970's.

In general, Americans don't value bilingualism, or the need for students to retain their own language, which affects how English is taught. And children who speak more than one language are not viewed as assets. Not only does this hurt non-English-speaking students, but it is also evident in the haphazard and generally ineffective way that foreign languages are taught.

Cities like Philadelphia have a daunting task trying to teach students speaking multiple foreign languages in the same school - not to mention some who are literate in their native tongue and some who are not. Then there is the matter of culture. Over time, there has been little effort to understand other cultures and interpret the behaviors of both students and their parents from that standpoint. Cultural differences also exacerbate conflict among students, but the district generally doesn't make an effort to educate students about them.

 

Communication gap

Beyond the pedagogy of language instruction there is the matter of dealing with families. There is another recent incident is a case in point. A Mexican mother went to the School Reform Commission saying that she felt intimidated not to speak because the principal and the regional office in her area had intervened after her name showed up on the speaker's list for that meeting. They wanted to know what she planned to say. The school officials were following orders from the administration of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman to try to solve parents' problems before they got to the SRC level.

The only problem was that she wanted to speak to the SRC not about her own child's needs, but about the district's failure to implement a promised policy on communicating with immigrant families. Either nobody at the school had inquired about why she wanted to speak - or they were genuinely trying to intimidate her from raising the larger issue.

Ackerman later chalked it up to a "cultural misunderstanding" and said she would look into it.

In the wake of South Philly, questions have also arisen how the administration is approaching its ESOL program. There are six levels of ESOL, from students who barely speak English to those who are quite proficient. Most of the low-level classes are "sheltered," while those in the upper levels are often in regular classes with ESOL teachers "pushing in" for extra support.

 

ESOL disbanded

Word is now, however, that in some high schools, the six levels of ESOL have largely been disbanded and all students are being "pushed in" to regular classes, regardless of their English proficiency.  Most research indicates this is not an effective way to teach English-language learners at the lowest level.

Ethnic politics has long dominated the district - Italians, Irish, Jews and Blacks all had their own separate professional organizations and their own "seats" on the Board of Education. There was always skepticism of those from the newest ethnic groups to arrive, especially if English was not their native language. (One high-ranking Italian-American administrator, who was born here and had a doctorate from Penn, once told me a member of the District's old guard once complimented him on how well he spoke English.)

Today, Philadelphia's non-English speaking students are from all over the world, and members of all races. While the black student population has held steady at about two-thirds for nearly two decades, the white population has declined to less than 12 percent. They have been replaced by Asians and Latinos, many of whom need to learn English.

Given these demographic trends, paying more attention to its services for immigrants, working to create schools in which students from different ethnic groups can respect each other, and improving ESOL and bilingual programs should all be at the top of the district's priority list. At the moment, they are not.

 

 

Dale Mezzacappa is longtime education reporter who lives and works in Philadelphia.

 

 

 

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