Migrant students in Philadelphia aren’t getting the support they need, advocacy group says

A group of young and older people stand out front of a large stone building. Some are holding signs and some are standing under a blue tarp.
Guadalupe Mendez speaks during a rally on Thursday outside of the Philadelphia school district's headquarters. According to a new survey of Philadelphia school staff conducted by Juntos, an immigrant advocacy group, only 33% of respondents said they believe their schools are equipped to communicate with newcomer students and their families. (Carly Sitrin / Chalkbeat)

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Zulma Guzman came to Philadelphia from El Salvador in 2019 and is a part of South Philadelphia’s Hispanic community. But she’s had a difficult time getting comfortable as the parent of three students in the city’s public schools.

She said through an interpreter that there’s been a lack of translation services in official school meetings that makes her feel unwelcome. When she and other Spanish-speaking parents have asked for interpreter services, Guzman said, they’ve often been told to “bring our students or children or another community member to interpret for us.”

In addition, she said she struggled to find people at her childrens’ schools to help make her aware of the resources available to her as a member of a newcomer family.

Guzman’s experience isn’t uncommon. In fact, it reflects complaints about significant shortcomings with how the district supports newly arrived migrants, refugees, and those seeking asylum, according to survey results collected by Juntos, an immigrant rights advocacy group, and shared with Chalkbeat.

In the 152 responses from teachers, administrators, and counselors at 56 schools, just 17% said there were sufficient Bilingual Counseling Assistants or bilingual staff members to meet students’ needs in every language they speak. Only 19% said they had received newcomer-specific training that covered more than just interactions with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And only 33% said they believe their schools are equipped to communicate with newcomers and their families.

Philadelphia schools’ inability to provide the kind of support that immigrant students and their families want has been a problem for years, and reflects challenges schools are facing nationwide with recent increases in newcomer and migrant students.

District spokespeople were not available for comment about Juntos’ survey on Thursday, and said they would not be available to respond to Chalkbeat’s requests for comment until next week.

Philadelphia does have two “newcomer” academies at Franklin Learning Center and Frankford High School that are supposed to help these students. Students in grades 9-12 who have arrived to the U.S. within the past year can enroll in these academies. They are supposed to receive “an accelerated course of study” and unique support “so that they are able and expected” to get up to speed with their peers.

But even these academies that are tailored to help newcomers acclimate may not be enough to serve students’ needs. According to data provided by the district, Juntos said in 2023 there were 1,032 newcomer students, but only 70 were enrolled in the two newcomer programs, and that there were 120 spaces remaining. And empty seats may not be the only issue.

Ashley Tellez is a senior at Franklin Learning Center and a junior organizer at Juntos. Her family is from Mexico, but she was born and raised in South Philadelphia and has had a front seat to her school’s newcomer academy. She said in practice, students in these programs are not getting the support they need.

She said newcomer students are kept separate from the general student population, and she’s only had a class with a newcomer student once in her high school career. Tellez said these barriers that keep newcomer students apart starve them of connections with their fellow students and hamper their ability to make friends, join clubs, and fully participate in the Philadelphia student community.

“There’s so many students who come to the schools for these programs who live an hour, 45 minutes away, and aren’t given the right access to education that they are supposed to be getting,” Tellez said.

‘These systems don’t look out for them’

In 2021, the city school board unanimously approved a “welcoming sanctuary schools” resolution promising to provide training to staff on how to respond if ICE officers were to show up on school grounds, and generally how to engage with families and provide and protect newcomer students in their schools.

Guadalupe Mendez, a youth organizer with Juntos, said the group sent out the survey to follow up on that mandatory training teachers were supposed to be getting.

She said the survey results, as well as conversations she and other Juntos members have had with youth and teachers across the city, shows that training is not as robust as was promised. Juntos had spoken with some people who received the training “and they don’t take more than 20 minutes to go over it,” Mendez said.

Mendez grew up in South Philly — like Tellez, her family is from Mexico. Although she’s older than the students she works with at Juntos, not much has changed for Spanish-speaking students in the public school system, despite the “good teachers that had good intentions” who taught her.

Mendez said that, according to district data, for the nearly 23,000 English learner students in Philly schools, there are only 131 bilingual counseling assistants. These assistants provide translation services, help families get connected with resources in the city, and help non-English speaking families build relationships with their school leaders, teachers, and community.

But the relatively small number of these assistants restricts how much they can help families, Mendez said.

The students she’s talked to who’ve come to the district while still learning English “can’t believe that there are no supports. They can’t believe that these systems don’t look out for them.”

Mendez said the district defines students who have “recently arrived” as those who have come to the country within the past year. But that’s often far from enough time to learn a new language, get caught up on classwork, and feel integrated into their schools, she said.

Juntos has told the school district it should expand the newcomer definition to “any students who have recently arrived (within the last three years) to the United States, and may include but are not limited to: asylees, refugees, unaccompanied youth, undocumented youth, migratory students, and other immigrant children and youth.”

The group also wants the district to set up newcomer programs in middle schools and add at least one new high school program in South Philly, where many newcomer students live.

Students act as interpreters for newcomer students

Felipe Mejia-Cuba, a Philadelphia student and volunteer with Juntos, remembers working in a restaurant two years ago with a newcomer student when one day, in the middle of a shift the student insisted that Mejia-Cuba call a hospital to help him navigate the health care system.

Mejia-Cuba said the student, who attended Horace Howard Furness High School, told him his school wasn’t able to help, and that he needed forms and vaccinations to help him stay in school.

That’s a common experience for many bilingual young people, who are tasked with translating meetings and documents for friends and family.

“That was the first red flag that I encountered,” Mejia-Cuba said. “I found out about all the disadvantages and all the neglect that the newcomer students are facing.”

Mejia-Cuba said being a mentor for other kids his age has helped him better understand the resources available to Spanish-speaking Philadelphians and find his place in his community.

“The me that I am now would be able to help that kid in the basement of that restaurant,” Mejia-Cuba said.

He doesn’t want his newborn cousins and relatives in the public school system to have the same struggles that he did: “It’s not just a battle for who is in the schools now, it’s a battle for generations to come.

Tellez, the senior at Franklin Learning Center, said she feels lucky because she’s able to speak out when some of her fellow students may not be able to because they are undocumented or have family members who are undocumented and fear federal immigration authorities.

She and Mejia-Cuba both said though they are graduating, they want the school district to improve for those coming up behind them.

“I really grew up with these ideas of what schools can look like and what power I have as a student to achieve that,” Tellez said. “I learned that I have a voice and I can use my voice to create change.”

Carly Sitrin is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Philadelphia. Contact Carly at csitrin@chalkbeat.org.

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