On a crisp September morning, the lesson of the day in a beginning class in English as a second language at International Middle School in Brooklyn was on greetings.
“Are you in my E.S.L. class?” asked Sala Uddin, 13, a native of Bangladesh.
“Yeah, I’m Noelson,” said Noelson Jacques, 12, of Haiti, substituting his name in the script from which he was reading. He sounded out his words carefully. “What is your name?”
The 15 students, whose native languages were Urdu, Spanish, Bengali, Haitian Creole and others, looked bewildered as they followed the handout that their teacher, Mannor Wong-Skillin, had told them to read aloud with a partner.
English-as-a-second-language classes, known as E.S.L., had long been the gateway for immigrant students to learn English in classrooms across the city. The idea was to help newcomers learn the fundamentals of English before they went into mainstream classrooms. But about three decades ago, the course became something of a stepchild when bilingual education became the preferred method of teaching foreign students.
In bilingual education, students are taught academic subjects in their native languages at the same time that they study English in E.S.L. classes. Students who choose not to take bilingual education will be placed in E.S.L. classes while taking their subject classes in English.
Support for the bilingual method, particularly by Hispanic groups like Aspira, became so insistent that New York State adopted a law giving non-English-speaking students the option of taking bilingual programs instead of E.S.L. programs.
Now, English as a second language is the focus of new attention after a recently released New York City Board of Education study found that students in the programs were 10 percent more likely than students in bilingual programs to reach English proficiency within three years.
As a result, critics of bilingual programs have called for deep changes, demanding more emphasis on classes in English as a second language and urging that bilingual programs find ways to move children into mainstream classes sooner.
Proponents of bilingual education counter that E.S.L. programs alone do not do enough for students to learn English, which is why, they say, the programs were supplanted when bilingual education became popular.
“E.S.L. will help you learn English,” said Susan Pien Hsu, an administrator in the chancellor’s office of monitoring and school improvement at the Board of Education. “It doesn’t help you understand the context. You need bilingual education for that.”
Randy M. Mastro, a lawyer and former deputy mayor in the Giuliani administration who is chairman of the Mayor’s Task Force on Bilingual Education, said the Board of Education should consider adding a program known as standard English immersion. In that program, students take all their courses ? English, social studies, arithmetic or anything else ? in English. Mr. Mastro would like to see immersion classes made one of the options available to non-English-speaking students.
Mr. Mastro said he was struck by early results from California that showed marked improvements in the English and math scores of Spanish-speaking students two years after the state’s bilingual education program was dismantled. The California school district that had some of the greatest gains, Oceanside, uses standard English immersion, said Ken Noonan, the schools superintendent there.
Mr. Mastro said he only wanted to improve New York’s bilingual program because dismantling it would be too difficult. It is authorized by a court order and state law, and it is supported by powerful advocacy groups and elected officials.
Guidelines say any student whose native language is not English and who scores low enough on an assessment test has the right to special instruction. Bilingual programs must be provided if there are 15 or more students who speak the same language in one grade, or in two successive grades. Those students who choose E.S.L. are supposed to be in E.S.L. classes for three hours a day and take their usual classes, like math, say, in English the rest of the day. Every school manages its time differently.
At International School, one of several small schools that have been created to serve non-English-speaking students, the three-hour allotment is broken into two classes. One is a small group that focuses on basic skills and the other is a double period that focuses on grammar. The school also has extended day programs for E.S.L. students and for those in the bilingual program.
English-as-a-second-language classes are an essential part of bilingual education at International Middle School, though it maintains separate programs for students who do not wish to enroll in bilingual classes, said Nancy T. Brogan, the principal of Intermediate School 62, which includes International School and three other small schools. When students are ready for the mainstream, they can enroll in classes at the other small schools, she said.
In Mrs. Wong-Skillin’s basic skills class, activities include listening and comprehension, discussions, working in pairs and short writing assignments. E.S.L. classes range from basic to advanced for students in all grades.
After reading the greetings script the other day, students practiced writing their first and last names. Later, they were to learn to share and write personal information like their addresses and phone numbers, Mrs. Wong-Skillin said.
To help students learn vocabulary, she uses pictures. Instead of reading a book about George Washington, she used his picture and a pointer to ask questions about his hair and the color of his clothes.
“E.S.L. teachers are working on buildings,” she said, trying to describe her work. “The students are the buildings. We build up the scaffolding and slowly take it away as they become more independent. It’s a process that takes time.”
The state law requires parents who want their children to continue in bilingual education to get yearly extensions. Placements are usually continued if students do not know enough English to pass the language assessment test after three years.
Middle school students have a harder time testing out of the system than younger children. In some cases, they can speak English but have problems with writing, said Rachel Spear-King, who teaches advanced E.S.L. classes at the school.
International Middle School, with 345 students, was set up four years ago to help students in Kensington, Brooklyn, a tossed salad of cultures with residents from Pakistan, the Caribbean, Bangladesh, Russia and Albania, among other countries. Last year, 51 percent of the school’s students passed the language assessment test, up five points from the prior year and catching up with similar schools around the city, according to Board of Education statistics.
But many of the students face great odds. The school has a 92 percent poverty rate, and more than half the students leave within three years to attend other schools or to return to their homelands, said the principal, Mrs. Brogan.
Many of the 12- and 13-year-old students in Mrs. Wong-Skillin’s class had never set foot in a classroom before enrolling at International Middle School, Mrs. Wong-Skillin said. Poverty, war or political unrest in their homelands had prevented those students from going to school, so they lacked literacy even in their native languages, she said.
“They never picked up a pencil,” she said, taking a break from individual discussions with students. “We have to acclimate them to the routine. Sometimes I have to start at ground zero, which might mean teaching them the alphabet.”
Noelson, who is in the seventh grade, arrived at International School last year unable to read or write in English or in his native language, said Brigitte Balmir, the Haitian bilingual teacher. This year, Noelson is reading at the first-grade level and solving mathematics problems at the third-grade level, Ms. Balmir said. She hopes he will continue to learn English and eventually make his way into mainstream classes.
But Noelson still has difficulty answering questions in English in Mrs. Wong- Skillin’s class. When asked how long he has lived in New York City, he gazed up shyly and could not answer. But when asked his name, he said proudly: “Noelson!”
His classmate, Sala, was a little more confident when asked about the assignment. After a year in New York City, he is in an E.S.L.-only program and does not take bilingual classes, Mrs. Wong-Skillin said.
“I know this already,” he said. “This is easy.”