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In Strategy to Help English-Learners, New York Expands Dual-Language Programs

By Corey Mitchell — June 09, 2015 8 min read
New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña speaks to the media last year at the Laboratory School of Finance in the Bronx. The chancellor has pledged to improve language instruction for the city’s English-learners.
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As the New York City district forges ahead to add or expand dual-language programs at 40 schools this coming fall, education leaders here continue to grapple with issues that have hobbled their ability to provide required services to an ever-increasing number of English-language learners.

The number of dual-language programs is not just on the rise in New York City, but is also multiplying around the country as school districts and states aim to prepare multilingual students who can compete for jobs in the global economy. In New York City, most of the new and expanded programs will be in Spanish, but the initiative will also include instruction in Mandarin, French, Haitian Creole, Hebrew, and Japanese, depending on the school site.

While advocates for English-learners are praising Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s expansion plan, the nation’s largest school district has had an uneven record when it comes to educating ELLs.

And questions remain about whether more dual-language programs—in which classroom instruction is delivered in two languages, with the goal of bilingualism and biliteracy in both—will help the city make meaningful progress in raising achievement for its nearly 160,000 English-learners.

New York state education officials are closely watching the city’s plans and progress. In 2011, a state education department “corrective action plan” documented the district’s deficiencies with its English-learner students, and laid out a plan to correct them.

Challenging Issues

The challenges that New York City faces mirrors those that vex many districts: a shortage of qualified bilingual teachers, inadequate parent-outreach programs, and failure to identify, in a timely manner, whether new students need English-language-learner services.

Nearly four years later, the corrective-action plan remains in place, with city and state officials working to update the goals.

“We want to ensure that students get what they are entitled to,” said Angelica Infante, the associate commissioner for the office of bilingual education and foreign-language services in the state education department. She was the head of the city’s English-learner services when the district agreed to the state’s plan. Ms. Infante said the district has made progress, but “there’s definitely still work to be done.”

The district could face sanctions, including losing federal and state funds, if it does not comply with the benchmarks in the plan.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” said Tatyana Kleyn, the president of the New York State Association for Bilingual Education and an associate professor in the bilingual education and TESOL programs at the City College of New York.

“It’s not going to happen overnight, but we have strong leaders at the district and state who get bilingual education,” Ms. Kleyn said.

At Public School 16, a K-5 elementary in Queens, located in the borough’s heavily Hispanic Corona neighborhood, 75 percent of the 1,700 students are past or present English-learners. The school’s Spanish dual-language program, which began in 2003, is a district showpiece. In the side-by-side dual-language model the school uses, 335 students alternate between Spanish and English classrooms. A lesson taught in English one day continues in Spanish the next day without repetition. To ensure continuity, teachers team up to develop lesson plans.

Nearly half the school’s students are currently classified as English-learners, with many of their families hailing from Mexico and Ecuador. Bar graphs in classrooms chart students’ favorite dances—bachata, salsa, and merengue among them—and their countries of origin.

On state exams, the elementary school’s students enrolled in dual-language courses outperformed their peers assigned to gifted and talented classes, school officials said.

“The program is a source of pride,” said Martha Jimenez, the school’s parent coordinator. “Students are proud (to speak) more than one language and parents are more aware of the benefits.”

Principal Elaine Iodice said the school is considering ending its transitional bilingual program, which initially provides instruction in both languages but is designed to help students quickly make the transition from Spanish to English-only instruction.

During a recent visit to PS 16, New York City’s deputy chancellor for English-language learners, Milady Baez, told staff members the school is a model for the expansion of the city’s dual-language efforts.

Ms. Fariña lured Ms. Baez out of retirement last summer to lead the office of English-language learners. Within six months, Ms. Fariña promoted Ms. Baez to a deputy chancellor role, adding the district veteran to her circle of closest advisers.

The move is more than symbolic, observers here say: It underscores the priority placed by the two leaders—both of whom were English-learners themselves—on improving education for those students. Until last summer, ELL and special education issues fell under the same deputy chancellor.

Ms. Baez, in her new role, is tasked with reducing the achievement gap between English-learners and their non-ELL peers in a district where more than 159,000 students—one in seven—are learning the language.

Fewer than 5 percent of ELL students passed the state’s English/language arts exams in 2014, compared with nearly 30 percent of all New York City students.

Ms. Baez brings four decades of experience to the job, with stints as a bilingual teacher, a principal, an instructional superintendent, and a district consultant on English-language-learner programs.

Ms. Infante, given her past role in the school district, understands the breadth of the challenge better than most.

“They’ve had a lot of change over the past two years,” Ms. Infante said, referring to the turnover in district leadership after the election of Mayor Bill de Blasio. “They have to take a step back and look forward.”

Ms. Baez, who endured decades of resistance to bilingual education, is optimistic that a seismic shift is already underway in New York City.

“These are the best of times,” she said. “Everybody’s looking at New York City. We want to be able to model for other states.”

Moving Ahead

Since 2002, there’s been a 700 percent growth in dual-langauge, bilingual, and associated programs in the United States, according to a U.S. Department of Education database. Holdouts remain though. Eleven states, concentrated in the South, upper Northeast, and Midwest, do not offer dual-language programs, federal data indicate.

But adding adequate programs can be a struggle, even in the districts with the best of intentions. New York is evidence of that.

Just a few years ago, district leaders weren’t nearly as optimistic.

Under the corrective-action plan, officials were required to reduce the number of students who are not assessed for their language abilities within 10 days of enrolling in the school system.

The plan also called for aggressively recruiting certified bilingual and English-as-a-second-language teachers and communicating more effectively with parents of English-learners about the services available for their children.

The district also faced criticism from such civil rights groups as the Asian American Legal Defense Fund for not meeting the needs of non-Spanish-speaking ELL students.

The district is looking to tackle some of the challenges head-on, in part by hosting family-outreach meetings across the city to educate parents about the opportunities available to their language-learner children.

To address the teacher shortage, the district and the state are partnering with five universities to produce more qualified instructors.

The city’s plan to expand or add 40 programs in the fall alone would give it more offerings than all but five states: California, New Mexico, New York state, Oregon, and Texas. But in a district with 1.1 million students who come from nearly every corner of the globe, world-class dual-language education is a necessity, advocates say.

“This is a pretty ambitious plan, but in scope, it’s not that significant,” said Martha Abbott, the executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

“It’s proven that these programs can yield very good results,” Ms. Abbott said. “The challenge is what happens to these kids in middle school.”

New York thinks it has the answers in Brooklyn’s Gravesend neighborhood, where Intermediate School 288 has served as another laboratory for the city’s dual-language expansion. Forty percent of the students are first- and second-generation immigrants, representing 44 countries.

Enrollment has risen 65 percent over the past three years, in large part due to dual-language offerings that include Spanish, Mandarin, Russian, and Hebrew. The school turned its library into a makeshift classroom and has a roster of options to help newcomer ELLs and students with interrupted formal education adjust.

Principal Dominick D’Angelo said that in recent years, 15 percent of his students have landed coveted spots in the city’s most selective high schools. With more resources and attention devoted to language-learners, he is hopeful that percentage will spike.

“This is the first time we’ve seen a real clear vision of what a dual-language program should look like,” said Mr. D’Angelo, who is a dual citizen of the United States and Italy. “It allows us to run at a much quicker pace.”

With three months until the start of the 2015-16 school year, the New York City system is in the stretch run for its latest expansion. It needs to hire at least 50 teachers and ensure that each dual-language classroom is split roughly evenly between English-proficient students and native speakers of the second language.

“It’s crunch time right now,” Ms. Infante said.

A version of this article appeared in the June 10, 2015 edition of Education Week as New York Expanding Dual Language to Help Its English-Learners

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