Amber Charter School offers a fresh approach to bilingual education

A new school in Harlem for kindergarten and first-grade pupils is trying, its advocates say, to avoid the pitfalls of bilingual education.

Officials at the new Amber Charter School in Harlem say their dual language methodology avoids many of the pitfalls of traditional bilingual programs. Along with smaller class sizes and an artistic approach to education, they expect their model to gain prominence as educators search for the most effective ways of teaching children both English and Spanish.

“We are a two-way immersion process,” said Jon Moscow, the Amber School’s co-director. “We have designed it so that our programs avoid many of the problems that do exist in some bilingual education programs.”

Located on Lenox Avenue just off West 125th Street, the school alternates days of instruction by teaching academic subjects in Spanish one day and in English the next, a method known as “50/50.” Traditional bilingual schools teach academics only in students’ native languages, with limited English instruction, Moscow said. In contrast, Amber’s approach integrates the student’s second language, whether it be English or Spanish, into everyday learning, he said.

The 50/50 approach “has certainly been the model that’s the most effective for bilingual education,” said Mary Sefranek, professor in the Program in Bilingual and Bicultural Education at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College.

“It strengthens a student’s first language while developing a new one,” Moscow said. Opening its doors for the first time last September, the Amber School mixes native English- and Spanish-speakers within each class of 20 students, so “they can learn from each other,” he said. Traditional bilingual programs have been criticized for segregating English-learners from native English-speakers.

Amber’s approach shortens the time it takes for children to develop their language strengths, according to Evelyn Marzan, Amber’s co-director of curriculum. “The students will probably be bilingual by the third grade, or definitely by the sixth grade.”

In traditional bilingual and English-as-a-second-language programs, students sometimes remain there for eight or nine years, according to Randy Mastro, a lawyer and former deputy mayor who is spear-heading a mayoral task force on bilingual education. A recent study by the Board of Education showed that traditional bilingual programs in New York public schools leave a significant number of children behind. In response, Mastro’s task force recommended in October that English-learning students be given the option of taking all their subjects in English, a method known as English immersion.

Yet, Mastro said no member of the task force supports eliminating dual-language programs. On the contrary, their expansion as an effective bilingual method “is certainly something we’re looking at,” he said. “We did receive a lot of comments about how effective the dual-language program is.”

Sefranek of Teacher’s College made an even stronger statement. “The model being very much focused on right now is dual-language,” she said. “And the media is not picking up on that.”

But more important than the bilingual method chosen is the quality of a program’s staff, according to Dorothy Petrilak, director of bilingual education for School District 4 on the Upper East Side. “A program is going to be as successful as the people who are involved in it,” she said. “A 50/50 model has worked, but so has changing time from 30- up to 70-percent immersion in English.”

Further, Petrilak said traditional programs may still be effective, despite what recent reports say. Of those students who still remained in bilingual programs after long periods of time, “a huge percentage were special education children,” she said. “So the language learning may not have been the issue.” Special education programs help children whose learning needs cannot be met in the standard classroom.

The mayoral task force will continue to make recommendations as new data comes in, and the board will use these findings to shape the future of bilingual education in New York City, Mastro said.

Amid the debate, Amber’s administrators charge ahead. Marzan is currently focusing on the integration of art into the curriculum; the teaching staff includes several professional artists and musicians. “Art really supports academics,” Marzan said. The students can see through different lenses. It also supports emotional development.”

Meanwhile, many parents seem pleased with Amber’s smaller class size. “The attention the kids get from teachers is excellent,” said Gayle Gregory, 39, whose 7-year-old son, Tyrone, attends the first grade. “The teachers have patience, they care about the kids and they don’t yell.”

Students are told to address teachers by their first names. “The style of teaching promoted is child-centered,” said Margo. Albert, Amber’s first-grade English instructor. “We feel kids are happy to go to school. Our environment is small and homey.”

Gregory agreed. “Tyrone’s happy to go to school in the morning, and that’s a good sign,” she said.

Charter schools are a new type of public school enabled in New York under a state law passed in 1998. A charter of five years, backed with federal, state and local funding, is granted to educators who draw up a promising plan to advance learning opportunities; a school that does not meet the objectives drawn up by its board of trustees will have its charter revoked.

Backed by the Community Association of Progressive Dominicans, the Amber Charter School is affiliated with the Leonard Bernstein Center for Learning of the Grammy Foundation.

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