Excerpted from Avi Wolfman-Arent, Newsworks
New research offers rare insight into how quickly Philadelphia’s immigrant students learn English, revealing hopeful signs as well as troubling trends. The analysis, conducted by the Philadelphia Education Research Consortium, tracked English learners who entered Philadelphia public school kindergarten in 2008 and then followed them through third grade.
Researchers found almost 60 percent of those kindergartners became proficient in English during their first four years in Philadelphia schools.
But there were wide, inexplicable gaps between the types of students who reached proficiency and the specific modes of language students were able to master.
For instance, 88 percent of kindergartners could read English proficiently by the end of third grade, similar to the proportion who could speak and understand the language. Yet only 48 percent of that same cohort could write English proficiently.
Researchers also discovered that students whose native language was Spanish lagged far behind students with other, commonly spoken languages.
Only 43 percent of Spanish-speakers gained English proficiency in four years, compared with 64 percent of Khmer speakers, 68 percent of Arabic speakers, 72 percent of Vietnamese speakers, and 79 percent of Chinese speakers. Analysts couldn’t explain the discrepancy, but they noted socioeconomic status and the relative prevalence of English in a student’s home environment could be factors.
Spanish speakers made up more than 40 percent of the kindergartners studied, making them by far the largest language group in the cohort.
Waves of immigration
The issue of how to best educate English learners is one of increasing importance in Philadelphia schools; those students make up just over 10 percent of the district population, a number that has climbed steadily in recent years.
It’s no secret why. Immigrants have flooded Philadelphia in recent years, helping to drive the city’s first sustained period of population growth in decades. From 2014 to 2015, 12,465 immigrants settled to Philadelphia, more than six times the number who came to Philadelphia from 2009 to 2010, according to U.S. Census data cited in the PERC report.
The plurality of English learners entering the public school system are kindergarten students — about 37 percent, according to the PERC study. About half enter Philadelphia public schools at ELP level 1, the lowest benchmark on a standardized, six-level scale the district uses for measuring students’ English aptitude. ELP level 1 students are learning how to “use English words” and “respond to directions,” according to the PERC study.
That leaves Philadelphia’s public school teachers and administrators with the tough task of bringing these newcomers up to speed by the end of third grade. That’s a crucial benchmark, said Neild; by fourth grade, students are supposed to “read to learn instead of learning to read.” The city and school district also have a stated goal of ensuring every child is reading on grade level by fourth grade.