Emily is a reporter who’s been covering election security and voting procedure in Pennsylvania for more than a year for WITF and, previously, statehouse accountability news organization PA Post. She was the senior reporter for statewide public media collaboration Keystone Crossroads, covered city hall for PennLive/The Patriot-News (Harrisburg, Pa.) and The Press of Atlantic City, and reported for the Northwest Herald. Her work has been recognized by PMJA, RTDNA’s Edward R. Murrow Awards, the Pennsylvania Bar Association, New Jersey Press Association and Illinois Press Association. She is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania.
In this file image, teacher Laura Kangay, center, helps a student with his reading at Lincoln Middle School in Lancaster, Pa. The ACLU of Pennsylvania is filing a lawsuit claiming the Lancaster public school district is turning away student refugees in their late teens. (AP File Photo/Alex Brandon)
They claim the district rejects older limited English proficiency students who try to enroll or sends them to an accelerated program at Phoenix Academy, even though they’d be better off at the mainstream high school.
Phoenix Academy bills itself as providing an intensive remedial program for students in grades six through eighth and an accelerated graduation program for students in grades nine through 12.
The district denies it.
Superintendent Damaris Rau says she was “disappointed” by the lawsuit because she believed the district was working toward — and would’ve reached — a resolution with the six student refugees (of 18 at Phoenix and hundreds district-wide) and their families and caseworkers.
As the debate continues through this week’s proceedings, Keystone Crossroads crunched the numbers in the meantime.
For every teacher certified to teach English as a Second Language at Phoenix, there are 30 students.
That’s lower than McCaskey High School’s 40:1 ratio and Pennsylvania’s average of 35.
It’s less than half the U.S. average of 62.
The 2014 state and federal numbers are the most recent available from the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition.
They count all teachers with ESL certifications, even if their full-time job is focused on subject areas like math or history.
The Phoenix ratio came up during testimony from bilingual expert Helaine Marshall, a professor at Long Island University.
Marshall says placing refugees at Phoenix is “detrimental” for reasons not reflected by statistics.
One is the school’s condensed curriculum.
“Students … with limited English can’t be expected to go faster through content if they don’t reach a certain threshold of understanding of English,” Marshall said.
McCaskey’s International School would provide that foundation, according to Marshall and the students’ attorneys from the Education law Center American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.
The International School gives students intensive language support for their first year or until their proficiency tests high enough to join mainstream classrooms full-time, whichever is sooner.
Phoenix’s dress code meant to incentivize good behavior — green shirts to start, black shirts for those who earn it — also risks alienating refugees, Marshall testified.
Then, there’s the “no homework policy” and ban on taking home books, which seems like it would work against the schools’ very goal of acceleration, Marshall pointed out.
“If you have to leave English at school, you’re not reinforcing,” she said. “It’s very important for them to revisit material.”
McCaskey has similar rules for certain books that are expensive. And any students can ask to photocopy pages to take home, according to district officials and their attorney.
Marshall also noted the district isn’t using standardized proficiency test scores to assess the effectiveness of Phoenix’s program for ESL students.
Superintendent Damaris Rau says she plans to do so.
ESL students in Pennsylvania and 40 other states take the exam, known as ACCESS, when they enter and every February thereafter to measure their progress learning English. Although not aggregated at the building level, the scores will be easy to parse because there are just 90 ESL students at Phoenix, she says.
“No organization is perfect,” Rau testified. “Sometimes things slip through the cracks.”
But she also said the ACCESS analysis is one step of several the district plans to take – or already has – in response to the lawsuit, regardless of its outcome.
Rau already put a stop to daily patdowns of students as they enter Phoenix, when they go through metal detectors.
“It’s done for safety,” Rau testified. “But I didn’t know they were physically touching children, and I felt that was inappropriate.”
Now, staff will only do so if they suspect a student’s carrying drugs, a weapon or other contraband, she said.
Another allegation made in the case is the district enrollment officer, who’s scheduled to testify this week, turned away student refugees in their older teens who wanted to go to school. Those who did waited months, although the district reported much earlier start dates to state and federal agencies.
State law mandates a wait of no more than five days.
“I don’t know if that’s true [that the district denied enrollment to students]. It makes me wonder if there were misunderstandings,” Rau said. “But a student shouldn’t have to wait five weeks.”
Rau says the district isn’t turning away older students en masse, as far as she knows, but will investigate.
She also said officials opt for Phoenix if students seem like they won’t graduate before the age of 21, the cutoff for an entitlement to free public education in Pennsylvania.
“Our overriding goal is to get them to graduate,” Rau says. “For students who are ESL, the state and federal government requires us to make accommodations. …. So we are not expecting [English Language Learners] to have the same depth of learning as native English speakers.”
Without a diploma, it’s tough to get any job paying a living wage, let alone continue schooling and just because a student isn’t fluent in English, “doesn’t mean they aren’t college or career ready,” Rau testified last week. She noted Harrisburg-Area Community College, which has a Lancaster campus, provides language supports for students still learning English and offers aid to those who can’t pay the full cost of tuition.
Camelot Education’s contract to run Phoenix, for which Keystone Crossroads has filed a Right-to-Know request, expires at the end of the upcoming school year. Lancaster hired the company during the seven-year tenure of former superintendent Pedro Rivera, now the state’s Education secretary.
Agency spokeswoman Casey Smith declined to facilitate an interview with Rivera because “the Department is not a party to the litigation.”
Rau, who’s about to start her second year on the job, says she doesn’t know whether any information was provided to the district about whether Phoenix’s model works for ESL students. She says she hasn’t reached out to Rivera for insight regarding the lawsuit due to his current position.