NYC Expands Public School Bilingual Education

January 14, 2015 8:16 pm Last Updated: January 14, 2015 11:34 pm

The city will funnel $1 million in federal funds to expand dual-language programs for children that need to learn English, as well as children looking to learn a foreign language, Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced Wednesday.

Fariña picked a worthy cause, experts agree, as there are over 140,000 children yet to learn English in city schools, and research shows dual-language programs can be very effective in helping students learn the language while still mastering the academics.

But it all comes down to how well the programs will be executed.

The ideal is a win-win-win situation for students.

Dual-language means half of the class is comprised of students who speak a foreign language, Spanish for example, while the other half speak English, but learn Spanish. Teachers would teach half of their lessons in English and the other half in the foreign language.

The ideal is a win-win-win situation for students. Half the class learns English, half the class learns a foreign language, and everyone is learning the content: math, social studies, history.

City schools run over 130 dual-language programs, over 100 of them in Spanish. Fariña’s plan will add programs at 25 schools and help 15 schools expand the programs they already run.

But opening the programs is not enough.

They need to be of quality, noted Robin Harvey, New York University (NYU) Master Teacher of Multilingual, Multicultural Studies.

Many programs are either too heavy on teaching the languages, or too focused on teaching the subject content, Harvey said. In either case children may end up with an incomplete education.

Grace C. Bonilla, president of the Committee for Hispanic Children & Families, voiced similar concerns.

“What’s important is to make sure they’re keeping up with the substantive issues in their classes,” Bonilla said.

Indeed, only 14 percent of English Language Learners (ELL) were able to pass last year’s state math test in grades 3-8, compared to over 34 percent citywide. Less than four percent of the ELLs passed the English test, compared to about 30 percent citywide.

Another problem is staffing. It is very hard to find people who are ready to pursue a career of a bilingual educator, Harvey said. She was proud of the NYU Chinese bilingual teachers program. There are some 16,000 Chinese-speaking ELL students in city schools.

But still, the program has certified just 100 teachers since 2008. Then, about 30 of them ended up teaching dual-language programs, Harvey said.

It is very hard to find people who are ready to pursue a career of a bilingual educator.

It’s kind of a catch-22 situation, according to Dr. Heather Woodley, NYU clinical assistant professor of TESOL, bilingual, and foreign language education.

The schools of education don’t lead that many people to bilingual certification because schools don’t open that many bilingual programs.

“But the schools don’t have the programs because it’s hard to get teachers,” Woodley said.

Woodley hopes Fariña’s push for new programs will send the signal to colleges to get more people in the pipeline.

After all, the experts agreed, dual-language programs are a good thing to invest in. The city can definitely use more, Woodley said.

The new programs will include Mandarin, French, Haitian, Creole, Hebrew, Japanese, and Spanish.