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Characteristics of English Language Learners in the School District of Philadelphia

PERC research is produced through collaboration between researchers from Research for Action and the School District of Philadelphia’s Office of Research and Evaluation. For more information, please visit

In Philadelphia, a growing and increasingly diverse population of English Language Learners (ELLs) is intensifying demands on the city’s public schools as they work to meet the educational needs of these students. Overall, the ELL student population grew from 11,549 students in 2009-101 to 12,129 students in 2014-15, a 5% increase. The catchment areas which saw the largest growth in ELL population were those served by West Philadelphia High School (75% increase) and Furness High School (44% increase). Four additional catchment areas saw increases in their ELL populations ranging from 25% to 37% (Overbrook, Franklin, Olney, and Gratz). As in many cities across the country, educators in Philadelphia are searching for ways to more efficiently and effectively meet the needs of ELLs and close long-standing achievement gaps2 between ELLs and their native English-speaking peers.

As a group, ELLs are diverse and come from a variety of home languages, cultures, educational backgrounds, and educational needs. This brief focuses on descriptive characteristics of the ELL students served by the School District of Philadelphia in 2014-2015. Specifically, this brief highlights the diversity of the ELL population in three key characteristics that impact schools’ resource needs and program decisions: ELL population concentration, linguistic diversity, and current English language proficiency levels.