Money Woes Stall N.Y.C.'s Changes To English-Language Programs

By Mary Ann Zehr — December 05, 2001 3 min read
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The New York City school system’s plan to make changes in its programs for English-language learners, an issue that ignited fierce debate in a district with one of the largest immigrant populations in the nation, has slowed significantly because system officials don’t have the money to implement the changes.

“We’re working with existing funds. There isn’t any money in the city, period,” said Edna R. Vega, the superintendent for the school system’s English-language- learner office, who was hired in March to implement the plan. “It’s a slower process for us because we don’t have the money.”

After months of delicate negotiations, the city’s board of education approved a seven-point plan last February to improve English-acquisition programs. The plan largely followed the recommendations of Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy. (“New York City Modifies Bilingual Education,” Jan. 17, 2001.)

Mr. Levy had estimated the cost of the changes would be $75 million. But since then, the city government has been forced to cut budgets because of the worsening economy and the impact of the Sept. 11 terrorism. With the exception of some short-term funds provided by the city for Saturday English classes last spring, the 1.1 million-student district has not received any new money to carry out the plan for English-language learners.

Luis O. Reyes, an assistant professor of education at Brooklyn College, who was a participant in a coalition that fought to keep bilingual education as an option, said last week that “next to nothing” has happened with the planned changes.

“All the pieces that are in the chancellor’s plan have gone begging,” he said.

Four Options

Making four distinct types of programs available to the school system’s 155,000 English-language learners was the plan’s centerpiece. Currently, most New York schools provide only two options: bilingual education—in which students receive instruction in their native languages while they are learning English—and English as a second language, in which students are given special help primarily in English.

The plan calls for a new option to be added, “accelerated academic English"—a one-year, self-contained program in which students are taught core subjects in rudimentary English. It also calls for the expansion of the school system’s efforts to provide two-way bilingual education programs, in which native English-speakers and students with another native language are taught in both languages in the same classroom.

The plan recommends that schools explain each option to parents and let them select one. That recommendation was expected to reverse the school district’s practice of assigning some students to bilingual education and giving parents the opportunity to pull them out only after the fact.

To date, the school system has created 40 new classrooms of accelerated academic English in grades 4-9. Schools, however, had to come up with their own money for the changes—with the exception of teacher training, which Ms. Vega’s office subsidized with a grant from the federal government.

In addition, using existing state and federal funds, the district has expanded the number of two-way bilingual education programs from 63 to 77.

The district this past summer also produced a video in nine languages explaining the four program options that the school system hopes will some day be widely available.

“I’m distressed and depressed,” Mr. Reyes said about the lagging implementation of the plan. “At a time when there was hope that even the political compromise that the chancellor made would do some good, in fact there have been no resources.”

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A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 2001 edition of Education Week as Money Woes Stall N.Y.C.'s Changes To English-Language Programs


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