English-Language Learners

New York City Modifies Bilingual Education

By Mary Ann Zehr — January 17, 2001 6 min read
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People on both sides of the bilingual education debate raging in New York City have forged an agreement to modify programs for students with limited English proficiency while, at the same time, keeping bilingual education programs intact.

So-called transitional bilingual education—which provides students with academic content in their native language while they learn English—has become a hotly contested issue not only in New York, which has one of the largest immigrant student populations, but across the country.

But the path chosen by New York City officials, the chancellor, and school board members in the nation’s largest school system is significant because it bucks a growing movement to curtail transitional bilingual education. Residents of California and Arizona have passed ballot measures to scale back the controversial educational approach, and it also has come under attack in Colorado and Massachusetts.

“Armed with the research, we’ve been able to look at what’s educationally sound,” said William C. Thompson, the president of the New York City board of education and the representative from Brooklyn. “If you look at places like California, where they do it by proposition, the public decides, and it becomes a political process.”

For More Information

Chancellor Levy’s recommendations are presented in the “Chancellor’s Report on the Education of English Language Learners,” Dec. 19, 2000, from the New York City Board of Education. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

New York’s seven-member board of education is expected next month to approve a plan that draws heavily on recommendations put forth in December by the system’s chancellor, Harold O. Levy, to alter programs for LEP students as soon as September.

The plan for the 1.1 million-student district would create a new program for LEP students called “accelerated academic English.” That program would provide intensive English and content classes during evenings, Saturdays, and summers, as well as during the school day.

Program Expansion

The plan would expand the two-way bilingual education program, in which native English speakers and students with another native language are taught in both languages in the same classroom. The two programs that have been the mainstay for LEP students— bilingual education and English as a second language, in which students are taught primarily in English—would continue.

But equally important, say participants in the negotiations, parents would be given more control over where their children are placed and whether they’re kept in programs beyond the three years the state has set as a goal for their exit.

Schools would be required to get parental consent before children were put in transitional bilingual education, rather than merely permitting parents to pull a child out of a program after he or she is already in it, as is the case now.

Four of the seven board members—enough to carry the plan—said in interviews last week they favor the proposal, though a final version was still being written. The board also has set a public hearing for next week to receive feedback on the final product.

“I’m supportive,” said Irving Hamer, the board’s Manhattan representative and a bilingual education advocate. “We’ve had a tremendous amount of success in preserving the basic integrity of services for English- language learners, given what happened in California and Arizona.”

Jerry Cammarata, the board’s Staten Island representative and a bilingual education opponent, said he expected unanimous approval. Moreover, he said, it represented the best compromise possible because a federal consent decree prevents the city from eliminating bilingual education.

The decree, granted in 1974 to ASPIRA, a Hispanic advocacy group, requires New York City schools to provide bilingual education for Hispanic LEP students, who make up at least 66 percent of the city’s 160,000 English-language learners.

“If there were no legal restraints, I’m sure we would have moved to English immersion, or we would have minimized the role of bilingual education as we know it,” Mr. Cammarata said. “There needs to be a greater concentration on English study.”

Despite the consent decree’s protections, Hispanic advocates said they’re relieved that negotiations among Mr. Levy, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, and members of the board’s subcommittee on bilingual education resulted in a plan that preserves bilingual education. The mayor opposes bilingual education and can influence education policy through his two appointees on the board.

“We were expecting the worst kind of political battle. It still may come around the corner,” said Angelo Falcón, the senior policy executive for the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. The organization defended ASPIRA in the court battle that resulted in the consent decree. “We’re happy the chancellor took a broad, pragmatic approach,” Mr. Falcón said.

Board members say the issue became heated last fall when the subcommittee on bilingual education, chaired by Mr. Hamer, released a study revealing both the failures and successes of the city’s bilingual education and ESL programs. The study followed 16,500 LEP students from 1990 to 1999.

It found, for example, the programs were particularly effective for students who entered the school system in kindergarten and 1st grade. But the story was different for students who enrolled in the middle or upper grades. For instance, only 15 percent of LEP students who first enrolled in 9th grade left the programs during their school careers. The study also found that ESL students moved into mainstream classes faster than bilingual education students.

Renewed Criticism

Those findings, plus claims that curtailing bilingual education in California has raised test scores for LEP students, renewed criticism of bilingual education. Mr. Giuliani held a public hearing on the issue and asked Ron K. Unz, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who financially backed the campaigns to end bilingual education in California and Arizona, to testify.

But according to Ninfa Segarra, a mayoral appointee to the city school board and a supporter of bilingual education, the mayor retreated from his original wish to eliminate bilingual education.

“Yes, he would prefer an intensive-English model across the board, without bilingual education,” Ms. Segarra said. “Many of us urged him to try to move toward a compromise that would help move us more toward his model and not polarize the city.”

In December, a mayoral task force on bilingual education released recommendations on how to change programs for LEP students without getting rid of bilingual education. Several days later, Mr. Levy, a member of the task force, released a plan that mirrored many of those recommendations. His plan is the one that board members say they are supporting and are now fine-tuning for the final vote.

In addition to expanding program options and offering parents more control, the plan calls for an end to switching students back and forth between programs, an examination of how students with both an LEP and special education designation are served, and steps to improve teacher quality.

Several board members said adequately financing the plan would be key to its success. The chancellor has estimated it would cost $75 million, but Mr. Giuliani has promised only $9 million to support English classes outside the regular school day. Mr. Hamer expressed reservations about approving what he characterized as an “unfunded mandate.” He said he was lobbying for the board to scale back the number of recommendations or to determine those that would be phased in first.

Representatives of Hispanic groups expressed concerns about how the plan might be implemented, saying it was unclear whether some aspects would meet the requirements of the consent decree.

“Conceptually, it’s great, but as you get into the details, what impact is it going to have?” said Mr. Falcón. “You have to put the resources there.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2001 edition of Education Week as New York City Modifies Bilingual Education


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