Reporter’s Notebook

January 31, 2001 4 min read
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New York City School Crowd Cheers for Bilingual Education

When children of New York City stood up to a microphone last week to testify before the city’s schools chancellor and members of the board of education on the district’s proposal to restructure programs for limited-English-proficient students, the public hearing took on the tone of a pep rally.

The 125-plus people in attendance erupted into shouts of support and loud applause when Angela Olsen, a bespectacled 4th grader from PS 149 in Queens, expressed appreciation for bilingual education.

“We in bilingual education don’t only learn English but we also learn math, science, and social studies,” she said. “We feel proud to continue to speak the language of our heart and soul—our native language.”

Now a student in mainstream classes, Angela has spent two years in transitional bilingual education, where students are taught subjects in their native language while also learning English.

Another child, Jonathan Izurieta, a 5th grader in a two-way bilingual program at PS 95 in Queens, drew hearty applause simply with the statement, “I can speak, read, write, and understand in two languages.” And he demonstrated his skills to the people in attendance by presenting his testimony in Spanish as well as English.

Many of the adults giving public testimony placed as much emphasis on promoting bilingual education and the idea that all Americans should know at least two languages as they did on suggestions for how to improve the proposal on revamping programs for LEP students.

For example, the testimony of Teresa Arboleda and Gabriel Guzman, members of the Community School District 3 board in Manhattan, included a joke characterizing the lack of emphasis in the United States on multilingualism: “What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? An American.”

They presented their testimony in both English and Spanish “to show the importance of bilingual education,” Mr. Guzman explained in an interview.

The proposal by the citywide board of education to make changes in programs for LEP students was brought about partly because of renewed criticism last fall of transitional bilingual education in the 1.1 million-student system. But during the four-hour hearing on Jan. 24 at the New York City Board of Education’s headquarters in Brooklyn, no one criticized the method either through public testimony or by countering the applause for pro-bilingual- education statements.

Victoria A. Streitfeld, a spokeswoman for the board, said she couldn’t offer an explanation for why opponents of bilingual education apparently weren’t present. “We notify the public that the board of education is having a hearing in a variety of ways,” she said, “and whoever shows up shows up.”

The plan to restructure services for LEP students is based on seven recommendations that were set forth by Chancellor Harold O. Levy in December. It is expected to receive the school board’s approval on Feb. 14. (“New York City Modifies Bilingual Education,” Jan. 17, 2001.) A number of people commended Mr. Levy and the board last week for preserving bilingual education, rather than trying to dismantle it, as state ballot measures passed by voters in California and Arizona have aimed to do.

“New York has not made the mistake of throwing out the baby with the bath water, as has California and Arizona,” testified Ms. Arboleda, the community board member from District 3, one of the system’s 32 subdistricts.

While keeping the programs that have been the mainstay for New York City’s 160,000 LEP students—bilingual education and English-as-a-second- language classes, in which students are taught primarily in English—the plan calls for the creation of a new program, “accelerated academic English.” That program would provide English classes outside of regular school hours as well as during the school day.

The plan also seeks to expand two-way bilingual education programs, where native speakers of English and students with another native language are taught in both languages in the same classroom.

In addition, the school system would give parents more control over their children’s education by requiring schools to provide descriptions of program options and have parents approve students’ placements in advance. Under current policy, parents are permitted to pull their children out of bilingual education only after the students are in such classes; schools aren’t required to seek the parents’ approval before making placements.

The plan’s proposal concerning parents’ “right to choose” drew some of the strongest criticism at the hearing. People said they feared the school system wouldn’t do a good job of making information available to immigrant parents, especially those who speak little or no English. “I don’t see a plan in place to give informed parental choice,” said Andrea Batista Schlesinger, testifying on behalf of Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer. People also expressed concern that the plan would not receive adequate funding.

While Mr. Levy has estimated it would require $75 million this next school year to implement the plan, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has promised city funds for only the part of the plan calling for English classes to be offered outside the normal school day. The city is the biggest single source of funding for the school system, which lacks its own taxing authority.

“We have a bilingual program where one in four students faces an uncertified teacher,” Ms. Schlesinger said. “We have a mayor who throws pebbles at the problem.”

In response to similar concerns expressed earlier this month about whether the plan will be backed financially, Margie B. Feinberg, a spokeswoman for Mr. Levy, said “it is his hope he will get full funding for this.” But she said that depends on whether the board approves a plan.

—Mary Ann Zehr

A version of this article appeared in the January 31, 2001 edition of Education Week as Reporter’s Notebook


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