Existing policies and resources related to language access are not widely publicized and are inadequate to meet the needs of all the students and families that are legally entitled to language access services.
Many witnesses shared concerns that linguistic barriers in schools adversely affected students from a variety of racial and ethnic groups, including the lack of adequate resources to address their language needs, as well as the lack of support that would enable them to access existing resources consistently.
When students are unable to communicate their needs, they become more vulnerable to mistreatment and have limited means to report and describe incidents of intergroup conflicts clearly and effectively to authorities. Without robust language access policies, programs, and practices, students are less able to participate fully in the life of schools and less able to interact with students from other groups. This kind of interaction is crucial to building the understanding and trust fundamental to a positive school climate. Improved language access will also enhance student and family trust of school and District efforts to reduce and mediate group-based behavior.
The Commission heard how student and parent communication with teachers, school staff and administration is hampered when interpretation, translation services, and bilingual materials are unavailable. One education advocate told us, "One of the biggest problems that they're encountering is parent meetings where there's no one that speaks the parent's language. Forms that are in English, but not in the language of the parent." Another education advocate echoed this with her own observation: "One of the things that we've noticed at [many] schools is a complete lack of knowledge about how to address language minority communities [and] how to access existing District resources."
For many, language support across the District has been uneven. An education activist and attorney explained, "The basic, most consistent theme has been a sort of non-uniformity across the system. The problem has always been, okay, some schools do it well, some schools don't do it well… How do you create a structure that will make sure that all schools do it well?"
The District is significantly challenged by the breadth of languages represented by students in Philadelphia public schools. Witnesses reported a lack of translation and interpretation services for a variety of languages. Testimony indicated that it is difficult for many smaller or newer immigrant groups to obtain translation/interpretation services.
As explained by a District representative, this perception is in fact true. The District has full translation services in eight major languages (Albanian, Arabic, Chinese, French, Khmer, Russian, Spanish, and Vietnamese), and only partial services that include the use of language identification cards in school offices for other languages.
An executive director of a community organization described how this can impact intergroup conflicts, "If you speak another language outside of the eight...you're not going to get important documents sent home... Bullying has always been an issue for our community... Superintendent Ackerman, she recently gave out her school district bullying policy, their safety policy, and it was only interpreted in the eight languages, so our community didn't really benefit from it."
The challenge is two-fold: there is inadequate knowledge among parents, students, and school staff about what services are available (and therefore these services are underutilized), and there is a real lack of services for non-dominant language groups. Despite legal requirements for the District to provide meaningful language access to all students and families, progress has been sporadic. Resources on how to access interpretation, telephone services, and translated forms are often difficult to obtain.
As the director of a public education advocacy organization told us, "It would be extremely unusual for a Bulgarian-speaking family to find their way to 440 North Broad to explain that no one had been able to communicate with them at their school."
The Commission, however, did hear that there has been meaningful improvement in the last year; for example, first-line contact staff in schools have been trained in how to use the language cards and the central office charged with language services are interacting with more people in the community.
Witnesses who worked with new immigrants pointed out how the public school system and its language services play a vital role in their arrival to the region. One director of a community-based organization told us, "Although our agency provides intensive case management and orientation, our work with new refugees is limited by our resources. We depend on mainstream institutions, such as the School District, to partner with us and help us in the integration process. Historically, public schools have been instrumental in integrating immigrants and refugees in the region."
The same director also spoke about the serious institutional barriers interfering with the early and positive integration of new refugee youth: the lack of frequent, effective communication between the Welcome Centers where new students are assessed and the schools and classrooms to which they are assigned, which make alignment between educational need and instruction difficult; difficulty in transferring a student to a more appropriate program based on teacher recommendations without intense advocacy; and, a paucity of District efforts to encourage "positive interaction of American students with new refugee students," including buddy systems, small group interactions, and sports.