Hundreds turn out to ask for better services for immigrant students in Philly schools

During a Town Hall meeting at the Community College of Philadelphia, a student from Furness High School discusses the difficulties students like her face because of the lack of resources.

Immigrant students and parents need help, they told city and Philadelphia School District officials Tuesday night - more and better services, and protection from bias.

Estelle Hernandez, a Mexican immigrant with three children in public schools, said children whose first language is not English are often subject to harassment. Her own daughter and her friends fell prey to it recently, at lunchtime.

"Two American girls told them they did not belong in this country, and that they had to leave," Hernandez said. "And they were hurt physically at the end of the school day. I'm afraid for the safety of my child because she is an immigrant."

More than 200 people crowded into a Community College of Philadelphia auditorium Tuesday to sound off at a town hall sponsored by City Councilwoman Helen Gym and the Philadelphia School District.

Gym, whose background is in organizing around education and immigrant issues, said that the community's fears around President Trump's tough talk are legitimate but that there was still hope.

"No matter what is being said at the federal level, this is still our city," Gym said.

Immigrant students will be loved and cared for in Philadelphia schools, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said.

"We disagree on a lot of things," Hite said. "We don't disagree on that."

When he came to the U.S. five years ago, a Furness High School student who identified himself only as Benjamin said he had very little access to ESL classes.

"When the teacher would ask me questions, I wouldn't be able to give answers, because the questions were in English," Benjamin said. "I didn't learn much that year. I wish there was more one-on-one help, or at least more ESL teachers to go to for help."

That was a theme of the evening: The district does not have enough staff to aid its 13,500 English-language learners. Particularly acute is a shortage of "bilingual counseling assistants," workers who help students with translation and other issues.

The workers are often students' lifelines. At one point, there were just 20 of them. Now, there are 58 serving 73 schools, most just a few days a week.

Hite said that he realized more bilingual assistants were needed, and that he would make hiring more a priority in the coming budget season.

Several speakers, current and former district students, said that parents struggle to be involved in their children's educations because documents are often not sent home in languages other than English. They said they are also frustrated because they can't volunteer at schools - if they lack Social Security numbers, they can't get the background check required of them by state law.

Josephys Dafils, a Haitian immigrant who attended public schools, has gone on to have a successful career. He just earned his M.B.A., he said.

But the memory of being a struggling English-language learner in school was enough to cause Dafils to choke up. Without staff who can speak their language, students are often called on to translate for one another, robbing them of time spent learning themselves.

"This should not happen," Dafils said. "It's imperative that we invest in those children - all of them."

Students and parents talked about facing bias, and asked questions about college. They asked for more after-school programs and tutoring for district children.

Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez spoke out for students learning two and even three languages in city schools.

One parent, whose child attends McCall Elementary, said the district's services for English-language learners who also have special needs are lacking. Important, detailed forms she needs to fill out about her child's issues are in a language unfamiliar to her, she said. They're also sent to unfamiliar places.

"They have no way to go to their neighborhood schools," the McCall mother said.

Hite said those students should be able to attend schools close to them.

"We're working on that model," the superintendent said.

Hite also vowed to implement training "almost immediately" for district workers in what documents they are allowed to ask for in registering immigrant children for school.

The overflow crowd seemed galvanized by the evening.

"We've got a ton of energy right now," Gym said. "We're going to keep pushing."

kgraham@phillynews.com

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