English Language Learners (ELLs) are students whose native language is not English, and thus their English proficiency poses challenges for them in English-only classrooms. There are several approaches to educating ELLs, but all of them require additional resources; by some estimates, it may cost up to an additional $1000 per student to educate ELLs (Hochschild and Scovronick, 2003). Schools often face challenges when they have high concentrations of ELLs, as a result of ELLs receiving lower scores on standardized tests that are designed for native English speakers (Broderick, 2016). These schools often become the targets of turn-around efforts to do their test scores, which are known to cause disruption to student learning and often do not result in better outcomes for students (Ravitch, 2013). This means that schools with high concentrations of ELLs that are underfunded and unable to provide adequate support for their ELLs will not only unfairly hurt their ELL students, but the rest of their students may suffer the consequences as well.
In Philadelphia, obtaining adequate funding for the supports that English Language Learners need has been a consistent struggle. Philadelphia has been under state control since 2001, and has thus been run by Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission (SRC) for the past 17 years. In 2013, the SRC passed a “doomsday” budget, cutting down budgets to a bare minimum that hardly covered essentials and leaving schools to open without new books or supplies, counselors, assistant principals, art classes, secretaries, librarians, support staff, and many other central components of the school (Strauss, 2013). While the district is mandated by law to provide services to English Language Learners, after the passage of the doomsday budget, advocates questioned whether the services being supplied were actually sufficient (Hangley, 2013). To this day, students lament the lack of support for ELLs. In March of this year (2018), Superintendent Helen Gym held a roundtable with students to hear their concerns, and many students expressed the importance of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teachers and Bilingual Counselor Assistants (BCAs), naming them as a priority for students (Gym, 2018). Philadelphia currently has over 14,000 ELLs in their schools (over 10% of the total student population), speaking over 126 languages, so supports for ELLs are crucial to the success of a large portion of their student population (Windle, 2017).
Recently, the conditions in Philadelphia schools have begun to change; this July, Philadelphia is returning to local control. This past October, more supports were added in the form of ESOL and BCAs and the district was in the process of hiring seven bilingual psychologists (Windle, 2017). These hiring efforts were made on the basis of recommendations from a number of grassroots organizations, many of which are featured on this site. This is a promising first step, but there is still much work to be done to ensure that Philadelphia’s ELLs have the support that they need to succeed to the fullest, and grassroots organizing work is an important driving force in securing these supports.