Philly schools receive many students new to U.S.
Newcomers are entitled to services and have rights in the School District
By by Jennifer Kerrs on Sep 25, 2002 01:31 PM
Speaking many languages and hailing from over 100 countries at the School District’s last count, the immigrant and refugee families who have come to Philadelphia in recent years create vi/pant cultural diversity in our schools.
While all children in Philadelphia are entitled to receive the same quality of education regardless of where they or their parents were born, there are many barriers to complete access. This prevents students, families, and teachers from making the most of our strong multicultural community.
Families must know their rights in the educational system so that they can advocate for themselves and secure the best education possible for their children. School personnel should also respect these rights in order to comply with their duty to provide a quality education to all children. Both groups must also be familiar with the resources that are available to support newcomer families.
• All children who live in Philadelphia have a right to attend school
In fact, all children under 17 who live in Philadelphia are required to attend school. Students do not have to be citizens, or even documented (“legal”) immigrants. The only requirement is that they live in Philadelphia.
When parents enroll children in school, the school is not allowed to ask for a Social Security number, passport, visa, or any other citizenship or immigration information. All the school is legally allowed to ask for is proof of the child’s age and proof that the family lives in Philadelphia (called “proof of residency”).
A bill from a utility company that shows the family’s Philadelphia address is proof enough.
Parents who are asked for a Social Security number, passport, visa, or any other citizenship information during the school enrollment process can call the Education Law Center for help (phone number listed below).
• All children must be immunized before coming to school
Children must have immunizations in order to attend school in Philadelphia. Parents should /ping any records of their child’s past immunizations with them to the school when enrolling their child.
Parents should see a doctor or go to one of the city health care centers if their children have not had the necessary immunizations, or if they aren’t sure.
Immunizations are so important to children’s health that the health care centers will provide these to anyone without asking for identification or proof of residency. They do require proof of residency for other services.
• Parents can request that their children attend schools that have an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program
ESOL is a School District program for students who are learning spoken and/or written English.
During the enrollment process, the School District is required to give every parent the Home Language Survey, a form that asks what language(s) the child and family speak. This form is very important because it determines whether the child will be considered for the ESOL program. Parents who are not given the Home Language Survey during the enrollment process should request it.
If there is no ESOL program at the school in their neighborhood, parents have the right to request that their child be transferred to another school that does have ESOL. The School District is required to provide transportation or SEPTA tokens if the family lives more than 1.5 miles away from that school.
In addition to ESOL, the School District offers some bilingual programs. Students in bilingual programs, like those in ESOL, receive help learning English. The main difference between ESOL and bilingual programs is that some classes in bilingual programs, like science or social studies, are taught in students’ native languages. Currently, Philadelphia has bilingual programs in Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Russian.
The Newcomer Center, located in South Philadelphia High School, is specifically designed for older students (ages 14 to 21) who are new to the U.S. and speak little English. These students attend the Newcomer Center for one or two years, and then usually transition to an ESOL program in another high school.
Parents and school staff work together to decide if a student should be placed in ESOL, a bilingual program, or the Newcomer Center.
• Parents have a right to be involved in their children’s education
It is very important to children’s school success that their parents be active and informed members of the school community. While in some countries it would be considered disrespectful for a parent even to question a teacher or principal, teachers in Philadelphia rely on parents to check their children’s homework, talk with teachers about how their children are doing, and demand that their children’s special needs (including language needs) be met.
The school should contact parents if their child is not attending school or is getting into trouble. But it is also very important that parents check in with their child’s teachers regularly to see if there are any problems, so that they can address them early on and prevent further harm.
• Parents are entitled to a translator at meetings about their children’s education
Parents are entitled to supports that will allow them to participate in their children’s education. Parents can request that the school provide a translator when they go to the school to talk to the teachers, principal, or guidance counselor.
The School District tries to provide translators to all the parents who need them. However, because there are so many different languages spoken in Philadelphia and so many people who need translation, the School District is not always able to provide a translator in a timely manner. Parents always have the right to /ping their own translator (e.g., a friend, relative or neighbor).
• More help is available
Parents who are concerned that their children’s needs are not being met should notify the teacher and/or principal right away. If they do not feel that the problem has been resolved, they should contact their regional office or even the School District’s central office. (Parents can ask for these phone numbers at their child’s school.)
There are also many nonprofit agencies in Philadelphia that can help parents with school concerns as well as many other issues. These agencies work to improve the lives of immigrants and refugees and provide many different services, including translation services, English as a Second Language courses, after-school programs for children, and other social services.
Newcomer families can call Nationalities Service Center (NSC) for help (see Where to get more help). Nationalities Service Center offers many services, and they can also refer families to other agencies that specialize in certain issues or that are located in a family’s community.