Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy intends to propose a major change next week in the programs offered to students in bilingual education, allowing some to take intensive classes in English that would put them into mainstream classes more rapidly, school officials familiar with the plan said yesterday.
The approach would be a radical departure from the current practice of teaching students in their native language for several years.
The move comes in the wake of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani’s push to have the schools institute an English immersion plan similar to one being tried in California. But Mr. Levy appears not to be going that far and is avoiding the term “English immersion.” He appears intent on giving parents more control over where their children are placed, though officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity were not sure what changes he would request.
The bilingual program has long been criticized for keeping students for seven or more years in programs where they learn math, social studies and other subjects in the languages they speak at home. Mr. Levy’s plan, which would give them a longer school day, is aimed at moving them sooner into mainstream classes taught in English.
Mr. Levy’s plan would likely enhance state-mandated courses in English as a second language, with longer sessions that would be part of an extended school day. Courses would also be offered on weekends and during the summer.
Mr. Levy’s proposal, which he is expected to submit to a board subcommittee on Tuesday, is based loosely on recommendations favored by the president of the Board of Education, William C. Thompson. Mr. Levy has been silent on the issue, which is considered a political hot potato. He declined to comment yesterday.
Two months ago, Randy M. Mastro, head of the Mayor’s Task Force on Bilingual Education, and Irving S. Hamer, chairman of the board’s subcommittee on bilingual education, raced to build support for competing proposals on how to improve bilingual education.
Mr. Mastro, a lawyer and former deputy mayor in the Giuliani administration,
recommended that students who do not speak English be given the option of taking all their subject classes in English, a process known as English immersion. The proposal was rejected by advocates for the bilingual system,
who saw it as a ploy to undercut bilingual programs. He said yesterday that he would submit a new proposal to the board next week that would not use the term “English immersion.”
Mr. Hamer, on the other hand, recommended modest changes. One was to stop switching non-English-speaking students between bilingual classes and English-as-a-second-language classes because it hurt their academic performance.
The dueling proposals came a month after the board released a study showing that nearly half of all students enrolled in bilingual education or English-as-a-second-language classes failed to learn English well enough to leave the program after three years. Many of those same students failed to leave after eight years, including more than half of those who entered such programs as sixth graders.
The overall program for non-English-speaking students now enrolls about 176,000 people. Half of them study under the bilingual plan.
One method being considered by Mr. Levy and Mr. Thompson for improving bilingual education would be to offer intensive English-as-a-second-language classes.
Right now, students who do not speak adequate English are given the Language Assessment Battery test. If they score at or below the 40th percentile, they are placed in bilingual education. If parents do not want their child in bilingual classes, they can choose an English-as-a-second-language group.
In bilingual education, they learn academic subjects in native languages and study English in separate classes. In English as a second language, they are taught in English, with native languages used to help them into the mainstream.
Mayor Giuliani has been one of the chief critics of the bilingual education program, calling it a job-protection program for teachers and administrators. Others say that it traps foreign-born students in a mazelike system, offering them substandard schooling instead of passing them into the mainstream.
Support for the bilingual method is particularly strong among some leaders of the Hispanic community, who do not want to see the system dismantled.
Groups like Aspira became so insistent that New York State adopted a law in the 1970’s giving non-English-speaking students the option of joining bilingual programs instead of taking English-as-a-second-language classes.
And a court order was handed down enforcing assignments to bilingual education because Hispanic students, it was claimed, were not learning English or their other academic subjects.
Mr. Mastro’s proposal, which involves offering parents a third choice, might require amendments to both the law and the court order. Such a measure would greatly curtail bilingual education and would be strenuously opposed by Aspira. Mr. Mastro has pushed Mr. Levy, who is a member of the mayor’s task force, to propose a third choice.