Chinese, Cambodian and East African immigrants yesterday protested budget cuts that eliminated a Philadelphia School District office that provided language services to immigrants.
The activists, who spoke out during yesterday's School Reform Commission meeting, were upset over the layoffs of Mary Yee, former director of the Office of Language Access Services and Community Outreach (OLASCO), and Dr. Herb Horikawa, a multicultural psychologist who worked in her office.
"Mary Yee and Dr. Horikawa were very instrumental in helping our communities integrate countless school refugee children," said Fouzia Musse, who described herself as a "community elder" representing the Somali community in Philadelphia.
She said many refugee children have experienced war and other traumas that have made adapting to the school system difficult.
After the meeting, Cindy Suy, executive director of the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia, said she often helped immigrant parents navigate their way through the district because she knew to call Yee.
"I'd call Mary Yee and she'd tell [the parents] where to go to have their children take a test," Suy said. "Now that this office is closed, I don't know who to call."
But school district chief executive Paul Vallas said the work that Yee's office performed will be continued in other offices, including the Office of Language, Culture and the Arts and the Office of Communications and Community Relations.
"I don't anticipate any loss of services [to immigrant communities]," Vallas said after the meeting.
He said Mary Yee had done a great job. Now, other employees will continue the work she and others performed.
Cecilia Cummings, senior vice president of communications and community relations, said one of the people who reported to Yee remains in her department. And three translators who worked for Yee have been reassigned to the Office of Language, Culture and the Arts, run by Margaret M. Chin.
But the community groups weren't satisfied. "This sends a message that the immigrant and refugee communities don't count," said Thoai Nguyen, executive director of the Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Association Coalition.