In a fourth-floor classroom at Martin Luther King High School in Manhattan, 19 students, all recent immigrants to the United States, were analyzing Emily Dickinson’s poem ”A Word.” Though the students came from countries as far-flung as Cambodia, Haiti, Afghanistan, Mali, Uruguay and Yemen, no language other than English was spoken at any time.

Three floors below, Frida Rodriguez was teaching 22 students from the Dominican Republic, some of whom had been in the country as little as three weeks, how to use ”no” and ”not.” She drilled them in English, but they used Spanish to talk among themselves and even to ask her questions, which she then answered in English.

Classes like these in New York City’s public schools teach children whose native language is not English. Twelve years after a court mandated bilingual education for such students, strikingly different approaches are being used. In one English is the only language spoken in the classroom; in others the instruction is partly in English and partly in native language in varying degrees.

Thousands of Students Affected

While many factions dispute which approach is best, the non-English-speaking enrollment of students grows larger and more diverse each year.

The most recent figures show that in the 1984-85 school year, 113,831 students – more than 10 percent of the total enrollment -were deemed to have ”limited English proficiency” that qualified them for bilingual education.

Seventy percent of all such ”L.E.P.” students, as they are called, say Spanish is their principal language, but the Board of Education has found children with native languages ranging from Albanian to Urdu. More than 40 percent of all pupils entering full-day kindergarten now come from homes in which a language other than English is spoken.

‘A Continuing Flow’ Expected

”The numbers are unprecedented, and it does not appear that they are going to abate,” Schools Chancellor Nathan Quinones said in an interview. ”We can anticipate a continuing flow into our schools from anyplace in the world where there is political or economic instability.”

But in a school system that last year used 3,639 teachers and spent $67.5 million for bilingual education, neither teachers, administrators nor parent and advocacy groups have been able to agree on what is the most appropriate way to teach English to these children.

What they do agree on is that bilingual education has, from the start, been ”as much a political issue as a pedagogical one,” in the words of Ronald Jones, the United Federation of Teachers’ special representative for educational programs.

There is no debate over what the goal of bilingual education should be: to make students competent in English.

”You would be foolish not to learn English if you want to function effectively in this society,” said Linda Flores, president of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.

The schools are full of advocates of many ways to achieve the goal. At one extreme, students do not use their native language at all in class. At the other, they study English but are taught mathematics, science and other subjects in their native language over an indefinite time to encourage the development of fluency and reading skills in both languages.

Officially, Mr. Quinones said, the Board of Education is committed to a ”transitional bilingual education” program. Students are taught in their native language but are moved to ”mainstream” classes with English-speaking students as soon as they are deemed proficient.

But the Chancellor acknowledged that individual schools often strayed from that guideline.

”The approaches used,” he said, ”really reflect the individual philosophy or biases that are out there and do not necessarily reflect a great consistency throughout the city.”

The debate is intensified by statistics that indicate that many of the children eligiblefor bilingual education receive little or none. Ac-cording to a study published a year ago by the Educational Priorities Panel, a coalition of civic and education groups, 40 percent of those eligible receive no bilingual instruction at all. And 30 percent receive instruction only in programs called ”English as a Second Language,” which provide special help in learning English but do not allow students to use their native language.

”Since the time of the court decision, the board has managed to increase the number of students receiving special language services by a mere 10 percent,” the study complained.

Students and Money Rising

According to the Board of Education, the number of children eligible for bilingual instruction has more than doubled since 1974. And 15 times as much money is being set aside for bilingual programs as in 1974. Advocates of bilingual education say they wonder where the funds have been going.

”After more than a decade, there have been no significant reforms,” said Angelo Gonzalez, executive director of Aspira, the Hispanic education and advocacy group that originally sued the Board of Education for bilingual education.

Mr. Quinones, a strong supporter of bilingual education, acknowledged that many students were not getting the mandated instruction. He said the board had responded to last year’s report by drawing up ”a plan of action that is more specific and concrete than anything in the past.”

Differences in Compliance

Advocates of bilingual education, however, say the policies of the central board are less a problem than what goes on in many of the city’s 32 community school districts. There, they say, bilingual education is being sabotaged or simply ignored by administrators and school boards that oppose the programs on philosophical grounds.

”If you’re not in fundamental agreement with the philosophy of bilingual education, it will not be implemented effectively and given the chance it deserves,” said Diana Caballero, chairman of the Puerto Rican-Latino Educational Roundtable, another Hispanic advocacy group. ”Much depends on how a principal or supervisor feels about bilingual education and the political perspective he brings to it.”

”You’ve got a mandate that is either complied with or not, depending on the political climate in each district, each school,” she added.

As a result, Ms. Caballero and other supporters of bilingual education say, when the performance of students who are not native English speakers fails to improve, bilingual education gets the blame that should more properly be laid to the absence of bilingual programs.

”Where we attempt to provide services, we are successful in moving kids,” said Robin Willner, who wrote the Educational Priorities Panel study. ”The biggest problem is not so much the technique used, but the huge number of kids who get nothing.”

A few city programs have won praise from educators across the ideological spectrum. Among them is Public School 189, at the western edge of the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, where two-thirds of the pupils are immigrants or the children of immigrants and 86 percent are reading at grade level or above.

This year P.S. 189 was named one of 212 ”exemplary” public primary schools in the nation. It was praised for the fact that ”a vast majority” of its pupils become proficient in English within a year of entering bilingual programs.

In East Harlem, the Bilingual Bicultural Minischool at Public School 83 has been praised by both the Board of Education and its critics as an example of the success that can be achieved when children are taught in both English and their native language – in P.S. 83’s case, Spanish.

School officials say pupils in the program, which began in 1973, usually become conversationally fluent in English within a year and usually pass the board’s language assessment test after two years.

”District 4 offers a fine example of the educational gains that accompany bilingual programs that have been properly implemented,” said Juan Cartagena, a lawyer and bilingual education specialist at the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. ”There is data that shows that students from these programs have higher reading scores and attendance rates and are three times less likely to drop out than those outside the and program.”

More controversial is Martin Luther King High School’s ”English as a Second Language” magnet program, which has drawn students from every borough except Richmond. Students in this program, who have chosen not to enroll in the bilingual education classes that are also offered at King, maintain that they have made greater progress by taking all-English courses that have been tailored to their limited English skills.

”I’ve been here 11 months, and not only have I learned to speak English well, but I can read books,” said Julie Rossana Secanechia, a student from Brazil, displaying a copy of Danielle Steele’s novel ”Secrets” as proof of her progress.

Integration Is Favored

”I’m against bilingual education because it’s a way of keeping kids in the ghetto for the next generation,” said a teacher in the program, Linda Farrell. ”Kids are in the program for years and years without learning to read and write English.”

”I happen to believe in integration, and bilingual education programs are segregationist,” she added. ”They separate the Hispanics from the Chinese from the Haitians.”

On the other hand, Mr. Gonzalez of Aspira and other advocates of what they call ”true bilingual education” believe that instruction in only English can slow a child’s progress and damage self-esteem.

”You are sending a message to the child that something is wrong, when the message you ought to be sending is that the language he or she knows is worthwhile and useful and positive,” Ms. Flores said.

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