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Last Friday, parents presented 400 signatures to the School Reform Commission demanding that Hua Chau, a bilingual counseling assistant (BCA) at H.A. Brown Elementary School, keep her job. Chau (who is actually trilingual, speaking Vietnamese, Cantonese and English) got a pink slip from the Philadelphia School District in June.
"She helps with everything — early dismissals, sickness, translating papers," says My Dung Ly, a mother of three at the diverse Kensington-area school. Without her, "It would be chaos!"
BCAs like Chau translate documents, liaise with families and effectively serve as intercultural social workers — which is why parents and immigrant advocates were worried indeed when, last month, the district announced the layoffs of 45 of 103 BCAs, along with 16 of 275 English as a Second Language (ESOL) teachers (a spokesperson for the district says seven teachers will be rehired by charter schools).
These layoffs, of course, were just one of many deep cost-cutting measures announced by school officials in the wake of the slashing of education funding by Gov. Tom Corbett as well as a massive shortfall in the Philadelphia School District's own budgeting. The now $664-million budget gap has resulted in 1,228 teacher and 1,275 staff layoffs, with more expected.
But immigrant parents and advocates say eliminating these positions will disproportionately hurt schools with large immigrant student bodies — like Brown Elementary, which, principal James Douglass told City Paper, could end up without a single Vietnamese-speaking person on staff. (The school is 18 percent Vietnamese speaking.)
These cuts, say the advocates, came without warning. "The district has been completely opaque about what it was planning to do," says Helen Gym, longtime schools activist and a founder of Parents United. And they've left immigrant parents worried about the coming school year.
The night before last week's School Reform Commission meeting, a few Brown Elementary parents and Chau met at My Dung Ly's rowhouse near Kensington and Lehigh avenues to rehearse their statements for the next day's meeting.
The walls of Ly's house are covered with photos of weddings, babies, and her in-laws' time as "boat people" in refugee camps spanning Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines. She came to the U.S. through the Amerasian Homecoming Act, which allows the children of Vietnamese women and American soldiers to immigrate.
Children playing outside on the stoop screamed in Vietnamese and English, running through the living room to pester their parents who were practicing what they'd say in support of Chau.
For the parents and kids, Chau is a conduit to the rest of the system — someone who can help guide them through the bureaucracy and help make their non-English voices heard in an English-speaking system.
It's crucial to the kids' academic success, they say, but also their safety.
"Most of the Asian kids have been bullied," said Chau. "I am there to protect them. A lot of the parents don't know the rules, and they will quietly go away or just let it go."
Large in the minds of these parents is the December 2009 incident at South Philadelphia High in which Asian students were attacked by a group of mostly African-American students. Conflicts between immigrant and non-immigrant students have also been reported at Bok, Fels and Furness high schools, and a March 2011 report from the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations faulted the district for "policies [that] fail to provide a clear and consistent framework for preventing and resolving intergroup conflicts," finding that "inadequate language access — a legal right — is exacerbating the situation."
The following day, Chau ran prayer beads through her left hand as parents stood up and spoke to the School Reform Commission members, asking for Chau's reinstatment.
Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, seated behind a desk with the Commission members, responded directly, telling them that it was "unfair to talk about" their schools "in isolation," and that she was committed to addressing bilingual programs "in an equitable manner for everyone in the district."
"Bilingual assistants," she added, sitting behind a nameplate recognizing her doctorate in education, "don't even have to have a degree."
It was a tense moment in an already-tense relationship between Ackerman and immigrant advocates, dating back to the crisis at South Philly High. (?They believe Ackerman inflamed racial divisions when she blamed the violence on an attack on an African-American student that was never later substantiated.) Those divisions remain strained. When a Latina woman testified at Friday's hearing that she wanted her children to "do better," an African-American woman in the audience muttered, "Better than anybody else?"
Degree or no, the bilingual counselors' futures may wind up being decided in a courtroom: The BCA positions were originally created as part of the settlement of a 1985 lawsuit that required schools to provide adequate translation services.
Following the South Philadelphia High incident, the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division found that the district was "deliberately indifferent to known instances of severe and pervasive student-on-student harassment of Asian students," prompting the district to sign a consent decree that, among other things, required adequate interpretation services for students and families involved in violent or disciplinary incidents at South Philly High. The district also told the Justice Department that it would provide additional interpretation training to all BCAs, which it did.
Lucy Feria, deputy chief for the district's Multilingual Programs, says, "We believe we will be in compliance with both of the orders."
After the hearing, Karren Dunkley, chief deputy of the district's Office of Parent, Family, Community Engagement and Faith-Based Partnerships, told CP that immigrant groups have misconstrued the cuts: The district promises that Brown will have a Vietnamese speaker on staff next year and that the net loss of bilingual support staff system-wide will be partially offset by the creation of 27 new positions called School Improvement Support Liaisons.