Bilingual Debate

Rudy's push to limit education programs draws flak

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani yesterday continued his push to force students out of bilingual education within a year or two, reviving what has become a national debate on how immigrants should learn.

“It makes no sense to have children graduate from school and not be fluent in the English language,” the mayor said, elaborating on a position he took during his State of the City speech Wednesday.

Giuliani and other critics charge that bilingual programs have become an expensive bureaucracy, serving too many students for too long, including nonimmigrant students who don’t really need them.

“It’s cruel to them and gives them less of a chance to succeed,” Giuliani said yesterday, echoing arguments being made in California, where residents will vote this year on a ballot initiative seeking to overturn mandates for bilingual education. “We shouldn’t have a two-tiered system.”

While some cheered the mayor’s position – including parents and advocates who consider it a pro-immigrant stance – others complained that the mayor’s plan is unfair to students new to the country who are just learning English.

“The mayor’s approach would hurt kids,” said Board of Education member Luis Reyes, a longtime advocate of bilingual education. “It’s an Ellis Island approach. It would immerse them in English, but what about content areas?”

As it stands now, more than 160,000 public school students in the city are eligible for either English as a Second Language programs or bilingual instruction, where they can take classes in their native tongue – primarily Spanish, Chinese, Russian and Haitian-Creole – for an unlimited time.

Patricia Moya of Jackson Heights said bilingual education proved invaluable for her Spanish-speaking son, who spent several years learning subjects such as math, science and social studies in his native language before joining regular classes. “Bilingual education is necessary because the child with a different culture learns more easily within their own language,” said Moya, as she picked up her daughter from PS 69.

Victoria Casado, however, rejected bilingual programs for her two elementary schoolchildren at the same Jackson Heights elementary school.

“I don’t like that bilingual education ,” said Casado, an immigrant from Colombia. “I don’t think it’s good for them. They were born here. I speak Spanish at home, but they watch TV in English.”

Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew is not as anxious to move students out of bilingual education without providing extra support services and some type of ESL instruction, spokesman J.D. LaRock said yesterday. He said Crew would favor giving students between two and five years of bilingual instruction, depending on their need, instead of capping the program at one or two years.

LaRock said the board is reviewing its bilingual programs in anticipation of reforming the system. “Many of them are successful, but there are some that are lacking,” he said.

An overhaul is inevitable, some experts say.

“There is growing evidence that immigrants don’t like bilingual education,” said Diane Ravitch, a research scholar at New York University and a longtime critic of the program. “Immigrant children get trapped in bilingual education
against their parents’ will.”

And Sy Fliegel, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, agrees with Giuliani that bilingual education in the city “has become an industry of its own . . . jobs, supervisors, the whole bit. A kid can come into kindergarten and graduate in a bilingual program, and I don’t think that was the original intent.”

But in Queens District 30, Superintendent Angelo Gimondo said most students don’t remain in the classes for much longer than two years, and believes bilingual education “is very effective if properly used and implemented.”

Gimondo’s multiethnic district includes about 8,000 limited-English speaking students, with 3,000 in bilingual classes and about 5,000 in ESL classes.

“When programs are well-run, they work well,” he said. “I’ve known children from bilingual programs who have gone on to very prestigious schools.”

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