Jaen Carlos del Castillo, 11 years old, speaks English well enough to articulate the definitions of words like “significant” and “incredible.”

The meaning of complicated? “When something is difficult to understand,” Jaen Carlos said.

Despite his apparent English skills, Jaen Carlos, who arrived here from Puerto Rico in 1994, is enrolled in bilingual classes at Public School 376 in Bushwick, Brooklyn, where he learns grammar, math and social studies in Spanish.

For English, Jaen Carlos relies on a schoolmate who teaches him spelling and pronunciation during lunch.

The boy’s mother, Rijo Castillo, says she wants him enrolled in mainstream classes.

“He already knows Spanish; he doesn’t need more Spanish,” she said. “He needs to learn more English. You don’t get that in bilingual.”

Touted by some as an effective way to teach non-English speakers, bilingual education is widely criticized for taking too long to help students adjust.

If polling analysts are correct, a vast majority of California voters on Tuesday are likely to abolish bilingual education in the state’s public schools.

New York State law forbids citizen-driven referendums such as California’s Proposition 227, as the ballot question on bilingual programs is known.

But the vote is spurring debate about whether the method is working in New York City, where more than 160,000 students are enrolled in bilingual programs.

“People are watching what happens in California,” said Ray Delmonico, executive director of the Public Education Association, a parent advocacy group. “As I go around, I hear a lot of questions from parents about why their kids are in bilingual programs.”

For parents like Blanca Fuentas of Parkchester in the Bronx, bilingual classes helped her 12-year-old granddaughter, who was raised in Puerto Rico, adapt to her new environment after she stumbled in English-language classes.

“She didn’t know how to speak; she was afraid to talk,” Fuentas said. “After she went into a bilingual classroom, she advanced. She was able to get through the things she hadn’t understood.”

California’s proposition would replace bilingual programs in public schools with a one-year English program. A recent California study concluded that fewer than 7% of bilingual students are becoming fluent in English each year.

The proposal has been endorsed by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, while President Clinton and teachers unions have criticized it. A recent poll found that 63% of Californians favor the referendum while 24% are opposed.

In New York, the bilingual education movement was started by Puerto Rican civil rights groups during the mid-1970s.

Since then, students who have scored below 40% on an English proficiency test are funneled into bilingual programs, where they take classes in their own language, whether it’s Spanish, Chinese or Russian. Parents can also enroll their kids in English as a Second Language classes.

Proponents argue that the teaching method helps foreign-born children keep up in school. The program’s shortcomings, they say, are consistent with public education in general.

“To isolate bilingual education is myopic at best. How well are they doing in general education?” asked Anthony Lopez, executive director of Aspira, a nonprofit youth advocacy group. “Philosophically, it’s sound. To speak more than one language is an asset in a global economy.”

Critics contend that bilingual programs camouflage special interests – that they are a way for schools to draw government subsidies and for unions to pad their rolls with more teaching jobs.

“They want to get as many kids as possible in bilingual programs because the city then gets more money from the state and federal government,” said Diane Ravitch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute who specializes in education. “The system protects adults, not kids. It’s about maintaining the program.”

Mayor Giuliani has said students should not remain in bilingual classes for more than two years, while Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew has said the instruction shouldn’t last more than five years.

Even those who embrace the concept of bilingual programs here concede that they can be flawed in a system in which enrollment increased from 110,000 in 1989-90 to 162,000 in 1996-97.

A 1994 Board of Education study commissioned by then-Chancellor Ramon Cortines found that students who speak English fare better academically than students in bilingual programs where little English is spoken.

Still, schools officials point to other statistics that they say reveal that bilingual classes are effective. About 60% of kids in bilingual kindergarten and first-grade classes move to English-only classes in three years.

But the figure drops for older children. Only 35% of those children who start the classes in third grade are out after three years.

“We need to strengthen a lot of areas, no question,” said Lillian Hernandez, the Board of Education’s director of bilingual education. “In some classrooms, the students stay too long. Sometimes it’s the children; sometimes it’s what the parents want; sometimes it’s the quality of instruction.”

Dr. Luis Reyes, a Board of Education member, said studies have shown that bilingual programs work.

“What we know after 30 years of research is that the stronger the native language, the more successful they’ll be in English,” he said. “But I don’t feel we’re there personally. We don’t give it enough attention. Where there’s sound design and support, the programs work.”

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