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Philadelphia Agrees to Address Needs of Asian Students

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In a negotiated settlement that promises to end a two-year legal dispute, Philadelphia school officials have agreed to develop a plan to better meet the needs of Asian students who are not proficient in English.

The federal lawsuit filed in December 1985 on behalf of Philadelphia's 6,800 Asian students is believed by lawyers participating in the case to be the first class action filed against a school district on behalf of Asian students since the U.S. Supreme Court decided Lau v. Nichols in 1974.

The Court in that case ruled unanimously that the San Francisco Unified School District had to take action to address the language deficiencies of non-English-speaking students of Chinese ancestry.

The agreement reached in the Philadelphia case is far more specific than the remedy the Court ordered in Lau.

It requires the district to review the placement of all limited-English-proficient Asian students in regular and special-education classes and to develop a plan to revise instructional programs where necessary.

In addition, the district will be obligated to recruit and train more personnel who speak the students' native languages in order to improve assessment, counseling, and communication with parents and students.

Widespread Problem

The action in Philadelphia highlights the problems faced by educators in numerous school districts where recent waves of immigrants from Asian countries have settled.

More than 250,000 Asians enter the country each year under both regular quotas from each country and special refugee resettlement programs, according to an official with the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

While special programs for Spanish-speaking students have become common in districts with significant numbers of such students, efforts to address the needs of Asian students are much more sporadic, according to experts interviewed last week.

“A lot of districts are coming to realize they have to make additional efforts and change programs for these children,” said James Lyons, counsel for the National Association for Bilingual Education.

But, as in Philadelphia, “if school districts don't begin to step up services to this neglected population, there will be more litigation,” he warned.

The lawsuit, Y.S. v. School District of Philadelphia was filed by the Education Law Center, a nonprofit firm based in Newark and Philadelphia. “We had begun to receive information about situations where kids were just lost--they were totally unable to relate to the instruction they were receiving,” said Leonard Rieser, the plaintiffs' lawyer.

The case of Y.S.

For example, Y.S., one of three students named in the suit, is a Cambodian refugee who enrolled in the Philadelphia schools in September 1982. He was initially enrolled in English-as-a-second-language courses, but these and all of his other subject-matter courses were taught exclusively in English.

“In part because he received no assistance from anyone who could speak his native language,” the lawsuit alleges, “Y. has been unable to make substantial progress in school.”

In September 1985, Y. was placed in a special-education class, after having been classified as a mentally retarded student through the use of a test instrument developed for English-speaking students.

In addition, the lawsuit alleges, “the district employee who wrote Y.'s Individualized Education Program had never met Y. or his family.”

One of the most alarming aspects about Y.'s case, and others like it, said Mr. Rieser, is that the district failed to communicate with Y. or his parents in their native language regarding his progress or placement in special education. “Consulting with parents is a very integral part of” the Education of the Handicapped Act, he said, “and if you can't communicate to parents, the whole thing breaks down.”

Special-Education Placements

The placement of limited-English-proficient students in special-education classes may be a common practice, said NABE's Mr. Lyons.

“One reason for it is structural and fundamental, because special education is where the money is,” he said, noting that funding for special education has increased far more in real terms than programs for LEP students.

“You have very sincere officials saying 'Well, if we put them in special education, there are resources available, and we can give the students greater attention, therefore it's the best we can do for them,”' he explained.

“It's tragic, because we've stigmatized the kids in the process,” he added. “It's a case of kids chasing dollars, instead of the dollars being used for what's best for the kids.”

Such practices, the Philadelphia suit alleged, violate both state and federal laws, and constitutional guarantees of equal educational opportunity.

School officials in Philadelphia have been making efforts to serve immigrants, said Robert Lear, a lawyer for the district, but “we are admitting there are some youngsters in the school district that did not get all of the services they were entitled to.”

The problems posed by recent waves of immigrants are “extremely difficult,” he said, because they often include students who have received little education in their home country and are thus not proficient in their native language, let alone English.

“Most of the immigrants we received prior to the last few years arrived with a reasonable academic background, so we could put them into a regular school and expect they would succeed,” he added.

Other school districts face similar problems, he noted. “We agreed to a plan to develop a plan because nobody's got the answers.”

Refugee Trauma

In addition to language difficulties, Asian immigrants often experience difficulty adjusting to a culture that is radically different from the one they are used to, a problem that is compounded by racial intolerance and violence in this country, experts noted.

Refugees also commonly suffer the continuing effects of traumas and deprivations caused directly or indirectly by wars in their native countries and by repeated relocations. Very few educators are adequately prepared to address these complex and interrelated problems, the experts said.

“One of the things we've had to educate people about is the now familiar stereotype that Asian students are all succeeding in school,” said Mr. Rieser. “There is some truth to the stereotype, but there are also Asian students who are doing very, very, badly in school. Somehow that just wasn't being recognized.”

Settlement's Terms

Under the agreement reached with plaintiffs in the lawsuit, district officials agreed to attempt to contact all LEP Asians of school age who dropped out before graduating, to inform them that they have the right to return to a regular school or enroll in an adult-education course.

As of last week, U.S. District Judge Louis Pollak had not approved the proposed settlement, but lawyers on both sides of the case said they anticipated that he would.

The agreement, which district officials have already begun implementing, also includes:

—A requirement that both oral and written communications to parents be in a language they understand.

—A review of the educational program of each Asian LEP student, to be completed by the end of this school year.

—The establishment of a new position of district coordinator for the education of LEP students.

—The creation of a six-member advisory committee, with three members appointed by the plaintiffs and three by the district.

—The development, by June, of a remedial plan to address the instructional needs of Asian LEP students, including assessment and counseling in their native language and a revised curriculum for the district's ESL program.

—A provision for reviewing and revising the remedial plan, subject to court approval for the first four years.

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