Schools Takeover Threat

Words of dissent over bi-lingual ed

Angelo Polanco started his career in the New York City public schools last year fluent in the language of kids: He could chat with Big Bird and Barney and the entire lineup at Nickelodeon.

But after his first month in kindergarten, his chances of continuing to be able to speak English well plummeted.

“The English-language kindergarten class was very full,” said his mom, Angelica Polanco, “so the school started a bi-lingual kindergarten to ease the overcrowding. After the first month, they placed him in the bi-lingual class. I thought it would be just for the beginning.”

Now Angelo, a first-grader with a big gap when he grins, struggles in two languages, says his mother. “He is very confused,” says Angelica. “I help him with the homework, and I see, when they put the same word down in English and Spanish, he can’t pronounce the Spanish or say the English.”

Angelo attends school in Bushwick, Brooklyn, where the bi-lingual education program, designed as a gateway for immigrant children, has become an educational ghetto. Kids whose first language is English often are placed in bi-lingual classes because they have Hispanic surnames. And children who speak Spanish find themselves, after seven or eight years in bi-lingual programs, no closer to being proficient in English than when they started.

Shockingly, many go backward.

After three years in bi-lingual education in District 32 in Bushwick, 28% of the kids actually score lower on English language tests than when they started. That’s not how it’s supposed to work. When the state set up its bi-lingual laws, children were supposed to leave the program in three years fully proficient in English and their native language. Most aren’t. They stay another three years in bi-lingual education with very mixed results.

While the city provides bi-lingual instruction in nearly a dozen languages, no kids have suffered as badly from the program as Latinos. Now a community group, the Bushwick Parents Organization, has sued the state to stop a treadmill of documented failure.

“Bi-lingual education in New York City has taken on a life of its own, with no clear philosophy or goals, no time limit and no exit,” the group charged in its lawsuit.

In this lawsuit, we have the beginnings of a reform that matters unlike the shrill behavior at City Hall over the schools chancellor job.

There is no evidence that any mayor has ever fixed any problem by shouting at it. But the Bushwick Parents have studied the bi-lingual programs and are determined to fix it.

“We want to be very clear: We’re not against bi-lingual education, because where it’s working, it’s good,” said Maria Perez. “But here in District 32, it’s not working. My daughter was in bi-lingual from kindergarten to eighth grade.”

By law, Perez’ daughter should have moved into an English language class after the second grade. But the state commissioner of education routinely granted the city a waiver to keep her and tens of thousands of others in the bi-lingual program. The Bushwick Parents say that a series of education commissioners are breaking the law by not reviewing each child’s case.

The state Education Department counters by saying it takes into account each child’s test score, and that is enough of an individual review.

Meanwhile, the individual stories are heartbreaking.

“I never pushed for her to be moved out of the bi-lingual classes because the regular classes were too wild,” said Perez. “It was too wild.”

Another one of her children, born in the U.S., attended school in English language classes until the seventh grade. Suddenly, he was transferred into an English as a Second Language class a modified bi-lingual class.

“He didn’t know how to read or write in Spanish, so every day, the teacher sent a note asking me to help him read his homework,” said Perez. “They explained to me that the other classes were overcrowded.”

“I have a girl in seventh grade at 111,” said Carmen Menendez. “She has been stuck in bi-lingual for four years, and she has just started speaking English. Meanwhile, my older son went to school in another district. After he had been here four months, he started speaking in English.”

Neither Menendez nor Perez nor Polanca is a backer of the English-only movement that is afoot in Congress. But they are strongly suspicious of the people who are supposed to be teaching their kids.

“My child went through Head Start and kindergarten in English and had no problems,” said Maria Espinal, mother of a Bushwick third-grader. “Now he is in bi-lingual classes I thought he would be better off learning two languages, but he’s not. And they were pressuring me to put him into special education, but I wouldn’t.”

Every child who enters a bi-lingual program or special education class triggers grants from the state and federal government to the local school district.

The incentives are backward: To the less scrupulous districts, the kids are more valuable when ransomed off to a bi-lingual program than brought quickly into English language classes.

“This is a system that rewards failure,” said Kathy Maire, an organizer for Bushwick Parents. “If you can prove the child needs bi-lingual education, or counseling, or special education, then the district is rewarded regardless of whether the child learns to read or write.” Angelo Polanco started his career in the New York City public schools last year fluent in the language of kids: He could chat with Big Bird and Barney and the entire lineup at Nickelodeon.

But after his first month in kindergarten, his chances of continuing to be able to speak English well plummeted.

“The English-language kindergarten class was very full,” said his mom, Angelica Polanco, “so the school started a bi-lingual kindergarten to ease the overcrowding. After the first month, they placed him in the bi-lingual class. I thought it would be just for the beginning.”

Now Angelo, a first-grader with a big gap when he grins, struggles in two languages, says his mother. “He is very confused,” says Angelica. “I help him with the homework, and I see, when they put the same word down in English and Spanish, he can’t pronounce the Spanish or say the English.”

Angelo attends school in Bushwick, Brooklyn, where the bi-lingual education program, designed as a gateway for immigrant children, has become an educational ghetto. Kids whose first language is English often are placed in bi-lingual classes because they have Hispanic surnames. And children who speak Spanish find themselves, after seven or eight years in bi-lingual programs, no closer to being proficient in English than when they started.

Shockingly, many go backward.

After three years in bi-lingual education in District 32 in Bushwick, 28% of the kids actually score lower on English language tests than when they started. That’s not how it’s supposed to work. When the state set up its bi-lingual laws, children were supposed to leave the program in three years fully proficient in English and their native language. Most aren’t. They stay another three years in bi-lingual education with very mixed results.

While the city provides bi-lingual instruction in nearly a dozen languages, no kids have suffered as badly from the program as Latinos. Now a community group, the Bushwick Parents Organization, has sued the state to stop a treadmill of documented failure.

“Bi-lingual education in New York City has taken on a life of its own, with no clear philosophy or goals, no time limit and no exit,” the group charged in its lawsuit.

In this lawsuit, we have the beginnings of a reform that matters unlike the shrill behavior at City Hall over the schools chancellor job.

There is no evidence that any mayor has ever fixed any problem by shouting at it. But the Bushwick Parents have studied the bi-lingual programs and are determined to fix it.

“We want to be very clear: We’re not against bi-lingual education, because where it’s working, it’s good,” said Maria Perez. “But here in District 32, it’s not working. My daughter was in bi-lingual from kindergarten to eighth grade.”

By law, Perez’ daughter should have moved into an English language class after the second grade. But the state commissioner of education routinely granted the city a waiver to keep her and tens of thousands of others in the bi-lingual program. The Bushwick Parents say that a series of education commissioners are breaking the law by not reviewing each child’s case.

The state Education Department counters by saying it takes into account each child’s test score, and that is enough of an individual review.

Meanwhile, the individual stories are heartbreaking.

“I never pushed for her to be moved out of the bi-lingual classes because the regular classes were too wild,” said Perez. “It was too wild.”

Another one of her children, born in the U.S., attended school in English language classes until the seventh grade. Suddenly, he was transferred into an English as a Second Language class a modified bi-lingual class.

“He didn’t know how to read or write in Spanish, so every day, the teacher sent a note asking me to help him read his homework,” said Perez. “They explained to me that the other classes were overcrowded.”

“I have a girl in seventh grade at 111,” said Carmen Menendez. “She has been stuck in bi-lingual for four years, and she has just started speaking English. Meanwhile, my older son went to school in another district. After he had been here four months, he started speaking in English.”

Neither Menendez nor Perez nor Polanca is a backer of the English-only movement that is afoot in Congress. But they are strongly suspicious of the people who are supposed to be teaching their kids.

“My child went through Head Start and kindergarten in English and had no problems,” said Maria Espinal, mother of a Bushwick third-grader. “Now he is in bi-lingual classes I thought he would be better off learning two languages, but he’s not. And they were pressuring me to put him into special education, but I wouldn’t.”

Every child who enters a bi-lingual program or special education class triggers grants from the state and federal government to the local school district.

The incentives are backward: To the less scrupulous districts, the kids are more valuable when ransomed off to a bi-lingual program than brought quickly into English language classes.

“This is a system that rewards failure,” said Kathy Maire, an organizer for Bushwick Parents. “If you can prove the child needs bi-lingual education, or counseling, or special education, then the district is rewarded regardless of whether the child learns to read or write.”



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