Advocates push Philly schools to move faster on immigration training

The exterior of Philly school district headquarters

Philadelphia School District headquarters at Broad and Spring Garden streets. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Since Donald Trump’s election, the School District of Philadelphia has been training staff to better deal with the anxieties facing immigrant families. But one group says the district hasn’t gone far enough, fast enough.

Representatives from the Caucus of Working Educators, an activist group within the city’s teachers’ union, joined with other advocates Thursday to demand mandatory training so school staff can better shield and comfort immigrant students. The advocates demanded the district provide this training for all employees before the start of the 2017-18 school year.

District officials said it would be difficult to achieve that in the timeline provided for all 17,000 district employees, but vowed to implement mandatory trainings eventually.

In the meantime, officials say, the district has already trained all school counselors and police officers on how to deal with immigration officers, offered voluntary trainings, and urging principals to circulate fact sheets on immigration enforcement, among other actions.

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The topic of immigrant student in Philadelphia schools has surfaced frequently in the months since Donald Trump swept into the White House promising a crackdown on illegal immigration. Just over 10 percent of district students speak English as a second language, and the city’s public schools educate thousands of immigrant children.

The transition to Philly schools can be trying, several students said Thursday during testimony.

Kevin Itena, a senior at Benjamin Franklin High School, said when he arrived in the country three years ago select staff looked at him “like I was from another planet.” Some cafeteria workers refused to give him food unless he could name the food item he wanted in English, Itena said.

“This has not just happened to me. This has happened to all of us,” Itena said.

Angela Chan, a teacher at Andrew Jackson School in South Philadelphia, said her young students have internalized some of the anti-immigrant rhetoric that has sharpened in recent months.

“In my own third grade classroom, students have asked, ‘Why do they hate people from Mexico,'” Chan said.

Others complained that a lack of translation services often forces students to act as go-betweens when non-English-speaking parents — sometimes not even their own — arrive at school.

Representatives from the Caucus of Working Educators asked for mandatory training to cover five areas:

“How to respect confidentiality regarding immigration status.”
“How to interact appropriately with law enforcement/”
“How to identify signs of immigration-related trauma and anti-immigrant harassment”
“How to access existing interpretation and translation services for students and families”
“How to create “a welcoming environment for family volunteers and students regardless of   immigration status and language proficiency.”

Karyn Lynch, the district’s chief of student support services, said the district is “open to all possibilities,” but added that providing mandatory training for all employees before the next school year begins “would be a challenge.”

The district has, however, released an FAQ sheet on how the legal rights of students in schools and how to deal with immigration officials if they do attempt to enter a school building. All school counselors and police officers have already received training, as have all central office staff.

The district has also held a series of voluntary trainings, although attendance has fluctuated.

“I think we’re well on our way to providing training,” Lynch said.

It was an otherwise quiet SRC meeting, at least by Philadelphia standards.

Several parents from Memphis Street Academy spoke in support of the Port-Richmond-based school, which was recommended for non-renewal by the SRC’s charter office. The SRC was slated to vote on the school’s fate at a meeting earlier this month, but decided instead to delay action.

Staying in the charter orbit, parents from a collection of Mastery charter schools scolded the district for crafting new charter renewal agreements that one parent, William Jackson, called “unreal.”

Mastery and about 10 other charter schools have been bickering with the school district over the conditions embedded in charter agreements dished out last month. Mastery has five schools that have been approved for renewal, but remain in limbo because the network refuses to sign charter agreements that it feels are overly burdensome.

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