Thirty years ago, when Herman Badillo, as Bronx Borough President, first dreamed of opening a college in the economically depressed South Bronx, he wanted a college in which Spanish-speaking students could receive degrees as quickly as possible, learning English while taking other courses taught in Spanish.
Thus was born Eugenio Maria de Hostos Community College of the City University of New York, a rare experiment in bilingual higher education in America.
Today the success of that experiment is in question. City University’s trustees, Mr. Badillo among them, accused Hostos last month of giving diplomas to students who do not know English, and voted that all university students must pass an English writing test to receive a degree.
“If you can’t express yourself in English, you shouldn’t graduate,” said Mr. Badillo, who proposed the writing test requirement as vice chairman of the university’s board of trustees and is Hostos’s leading critic. “Bilingual means two languages, English and Spanish. You have to be fluent in English to have a career. No one would ever have approved Hostos if they thought it meant monolingual.”
While bilingual education is widely used in elementary and secondary schools, few colleges have picked it up. In Florida, Texas and California, for example, all of which have large immigrant populations, college courses taught in English are the rule.
“We want students who are proficient in English,” said David Spence, executive vice chancellor for the state university system of Florida, who said college bilingual education was not a big issue in his state.
And at Boricua College in upper Manhattan, which describes itself as the only four-year, bilingual liberal arts college in the United States, all classes are in English, although faculty members and administrators are required to be bilingual so they can help students with language problems.
“We don’t believe we should give students the option of taking a degree in the United States of Spanish courses, because we don’t believe it would be helpful to them,” Roland Marrero, a student services official at the college, said.
At Hostos, which straddles the Grand Concourse in the Bronx just a mile from Yankee Stadium, and where more than three-quarters of the nearly 5,000 students are Hispanic, college officials defend their approach and say they are achieving their mission.
“The bilingual model has been effective in providing access to large numbers of students,” the president of Hostos, Isaura Santiago Santiago, said in a recent interview in her office. “They’ve left here skilled. Our career programs are nationally recognized in a variety of fields. And we’ve been particularly effective in giving access to minorities.”
“We should build on what people know, and teach them English,” she added.
About 22 percent of the college’s classes, mostly introductory subjects, are taught in Spanish, and many students spend term after term taking English-as-a-second-language courses. Some of the college’s departments, like its highly respected health science programs, require that their students be proficient in English to enter.
Despite Hostos’s success in areas like nursing and dental hygiene, where virtually all of its graduates pass state and national certification exams, English — and passing the City University writing exam — remains a stumbling block for many students. Although students at other City University colleges have similar difficulties, none of the other colleges have seen such large portions of its students repeatedly fail the university writing test. When the university offered the test to prospective Hostos graduates earlier this month, only 13 of the 125 who took it passed it.
Hostos is a tough place to run any education experiment. Not only do many students enter speaking little English, but many are poor and poorly educated.
On the writing placement examination given to all City University entering freshmen, fewer than 15 percent of Hostos’s students passed last fall, a rate lower than at any other university college.
Teaching English to adults is not easy. Young children pick up new languages fairly naturally. Adults rarely, if ever, gain the proficiency that children do. Language experts have also found that adults who are more literate in their native language do better learning a second language than less educated adults.
“That’s what makes this so complex,” said Henry M. Levin, a Stanford University professor and expert in remedial education who is a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation in New York. “It’s the dirty little secret; it’s more a literacy problem.”
Many immigrants who enter City University with limited English do quite well, passing the university writing test, excelling in their studies, sometimes graduating at the top of their classes and going on to elite graduate schools.
As immigrant students have flooded their campuses, City University professors say, their methods of teaching English to nonnative speakers have improved. One approach that is winning increasing attention involves placing students in courses like biology or history as quickly as possible and pairing those courses with English-as-a-second-language classes.
As in the bilingual approach, this pairing allows students to accumulate college credits at the same time they master English. Vocabulary and grammar drills are keyed to the paired course, and in some cases the textbook in the paired course may be used as an English reading text. Teachers who have used this approach say students learn English more rapidly because the readings cover topics they want to learn.
In yet another approach, City University has begun to introduce language immersion centers. Some applaud them as programs that allow students who know little English to concentrate in an English-only environment for five hours a day, 25 hours a week, before formally starting college. But others say the typical City University student knows at least some English and does not need the immersion, and that the immersion does not allow students to improve their English in an academic context.
At Hostos, students offer mixed views about the bilingual approach.
Maria R. Bosora, a 22-year-old public administration major who grew up in the Dominican Republic, said she might be better off taking fewer courses in Spanish. “This is the problem,” she said. “I little speak English. My problem is I don’t practice. At home I speak Spanish. All my family speaks Spanish. I think I would be better off if I took all English for practice.”
But Julio Alcantara, a 43-year-old Hostos student who came to New York from the Dominican Republic 10 years ago, said the college should not change. “The bilingual system is supposed to work,” said Mr. Alcantara, who is president-elect of Hostos’s student government.
For now, Hostos and its bilingual approach remain an option at City University, although the university’s chairwoman, Anne A. Paolucci, has set up a task force headed by Mr. Badillo to study the college.
Mr. Badillo, for one, is still not ready to give up on the notion of a bilingual college, and says it can work better than it has.
“Just because people have corrupted the process, doesn’t mean it can’t be done well,” he said. “This doesn’t mean we should throw this baby out with the bath water.”