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Parents Worry Bilingual Ed. Hurts Students

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New York

Marino De La Cruz knows what he wants for his children: opportunity. And, he says, to have that, his children must know English. He fears that the bilingual-education program in the Brooklyn schools his children attend has given them neither.

Mr. De La Cruz has pushed to keep his children out of bilingual education in Community School District 32 in the borough's Bushwick section, one of New York City's poorest areas.

The 43-year-old native of the Dominican Republic came to the United States in 1981 and settled here. His three children were all born in Brooklyn. Mr. De La Cruz, a waiter at a Manhattan hotel, speaks English with them; his wife speaks Spanish. The children speak English with each other, with friends, and in church.

Massiel, 10, attended an all-English kindergarten class, but in 1st grade she was placed in bilingual education. Her father says he watched her struggle.

"She was always lost and asking for my help because almost everything was in Spanish," Mr. De La Cruz said. "I got scared that if they spent all their time in bilingual, they'd never learn English. Or worse, not learn English or Spanish well."

Mr. De La Cruz is one of many Hispanic parents in districts across the country who are questioning the value of bilingual education. (See story, page 11.)

Last fall, he pulled Massiel out of the program and placed her in English-only classes where, he says, she is thriving. He vows that his youngest child, 8-year-old Giordano, will never enter bilingual education. His oldest child, Blaine, 12, is in a bilingual-education program and has asked his father to let him stay there.

Mr. De La Cruz and several other parents in Bushwick filed a lawsuit last fall against the state commissioner of education. The suit charged that the state oversteps its own rules by granting waivers "en masse" that enable schools to keep limited-English-proficient children in bilingual programs for more than the standard three years. Some children stay in the program longer than six years--the longest amount of time that the state will provide additional funding for an LEP student.

A state judge ruled last month that the state had the right to grant such waivers and dismissed the case. However, the roughly 150-member Bushwick Parents Organization, many of whose members are first-generation immigrants, plans to try again.

While the lawsuit turned on the interpretation of a single legal issue, the complaints of many parents here run far deeper.

They describe "bilingual" teachers who cannot communicate in English. They want their children exposed to more English earlier in their schooling. Many say they do not want to abolish bilingual education, but want better and shorter programs. And, they argue, too many of their children are coming out of the school system with poor reading skills in both Spanish and English--something district statistics seem to bear out.

Complaints Common

Bilingual education is also being challenged on the national front. Congress has proposed deep cuts in the only federally funded bilingual-education program, and bills to eliminate the program are circulating on Capitol Hill.

"Bilingual education is under attack, and that attack has manifested itself both inside and outside the Beltway," said James J. Lyons, the executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education in Washington. "Bilingual education does well when people do it right. New York, and other places, has good and bad programs. But when there are poor programs, the answer seems to be 'Let's get rid of bilingual education altogether. It's not working,"' instead of working to improve the programs.

Advocates of bilingual education say that teaching students partly in their native languages bolsters their literacy skills--skills that can then be applied to English--while ensuring they can keep up in other subjects. Most students in bilingual education also receive English-as-a-second-language instruction, classes designed to teach LEP children English.

Though the idea makes her uncomfortable, Sister Kathy Maire knows the Bushwick parents' complaints provide fodder for groups that want to get rid of bilingual education. Sister Maire works as a community organizer for East Brooklyn Congregations, a group of churches, synagogues, and homeowners' groups. She has helped organize the Bushwick parents' group, which meets in a community center under the shadow of St. Barbara's, a Roman Catholic church here that many of the parents attend.

"The bottom line is these kids are being robbed of their futures," she said. "I just kept hearing from parents that their children were not learning to speak English in bilingual education."

The Bushwick community used to be home to German and Italian immigrants, but by the 1970s it had become predominantly Hispanic. Brick row houses were replaced with public housing, visible from nearly every corner here.

Of the nearly 16,000 pre-K-8 students in District 32, nearly a quarter were designated as LEP last year. Citywide, nearly 18 percent of the more than 1 million public school students are LEP. District 32 has below-average academic marks in many areas, including LEP-student reading scores in English and Spanish.

Relations between the Bushwick parents' group, which has pushed for widespread school changes, and District 32 officials have always been rocky. But education advocates in New York City say many of the Bushwick parents' complaints about bilingual education are common citywide.

Learning at Home

In the sparsely furnished apartment the De La Cruz family has lived in for more than a decade in Bushwick's Hope Garden housing project, Massiel settled in on a recent evening to do homework. She pulled a slew of paperback books from her plaid backpack.

"I'm in one of the smart classes now," the 5th grader said in a thick Brooklyn accent.

A squat bookshelf in the living room holds a World Book encyclopedia set and a 4-inch-thick English dictionary, which Mr. De La Cruz used to supplement the English classes he took when he came here.

Like many of his neighbors, Mr. De La Cruz says he wants his children to be bilingual but would prefer that the schools focus more on English than they do now.

"Let us worry about the Spanish at home," he said. "When they're in school they should be learning in English."

Ada Jimenez, the grandmother of a 13-year-old now in a neighboring district, said she got nervous about the bilingual-education program when, in the 5th grade, her grandson tested at the 2nd-grade reading level in English. Her grandson was in an English Head Start program but was placed in bilingual education in kindergarten, she said.

"The colors, the numbers, the alphabet--he knew everything in English," Ms. Jimenez said.

Some parents here say school officials have pressured them not to remove their children from the bilingual program. By law, the schools are required to explain the program to parents before they exercise their right to "opt out."

But education advocates such as Ray Domanico, the executive director of New York's Public Education Association, say the enthusiasm for the program in some schools comes across as coercion. Some Bushwick parents say school officials suggested that they were traitors to their Hispanic heritage by asking to withdraw their children.

"My children know where they come from and who they are," Mr. De La Cruz said. "They don't need bilingual education for that."

Testing Students

District 32 officials repeatedly have refused to comment on the parents' complaints and would not allow visits to their bilingual-education classes. Several administrators in that district declined to comment on the program, saying they feared losing their jobs.

One administrator rejected many of the parents' claims; another said they were right on target. But both agreed that the way LEP students are identified in New York City needs to be revised. Change may come as soon as next fall, said Lillian Hernandez, the director of bilingual education for the New York City board of education.

New York City's bilingual-education system is guided by a morass of rules and regulations, some of which date to a 1974 consent decree struck to settle a lawsuit with Aspira, a national Hispanic advocacy group based in Washington. That agreement came at a time when many LEP children were not receiving special services in the city schools: Bilingual education came to the city as a civil-rights remedy.

In general, the LEP label is applied to children who score below a set mark on an English-proficiency test. Schools test children whose parents report that a language other than English is spoken at home.

But for Hispanic children--Spanish speakers make up 68 percent of the city's 164,000 LEP students--having a Spanish surname automatically triggers the English test, even if English is the primary language spoken at home.

Though the schools are supposed to measure the child's Spanish skills, too, in practice many educators and advocates say that often doesn't happen. And even if a child scores higher on an English test than one in Spanish, he may be placed in bilingual education, city officials said.

"Any educator worth his salt knows that test is biased. If there's any doubt, that child enters bilingual education," said one District 32 administrator who asked not to be identified.

An Urban Problem

New York City isn't the only large urban area to have such problems. In Chicago, for example, one review a few years ago found that about half of the city's schoolchildren would have qualified for bilingual education under one of the city's English-proficiency tests, said Xavier Botana, who coordinates bilingual education for the Illinois state school board.

Successful bilingual education seems increasingly difficult in resource-strapped urban schools. Nationwide, New York ranks second behind Los Angeles with the most LEP students.

The New York City schools suffer from a shortage of qualified bilingual teachers--2,021 out of 4,339 aren't fully certified. And many of those teachers are in District 32 schools, said Carmen Perez Hogan, New York state's bilingual-education director.

Within three years, 73 percent of the city's LEP students test out of bilingual-education or esl classes; roughly 5 percent stay more than six years, city officials said.

But New York City statistics show that some students score lower on English-proficiency tests at the end of the school year than at the beginning. While this is partly because the test taken in the spring is more difficult, many see the numbers as worrisome.

For now, the state is combing through District 32's data to ferret out problem spots and is working with the district to revamp its bilingual programs--work that started before the Bushwick parents' suit was filed, Ms. Perez Hogan said. On paper, she said, the district is complying with state rules.

"We're trying to establish the real facts and look at where is the school district taking, or not taking, these students," Ms. Perez Hogan said.

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