Chief of New York City Schools Plans to Revamp Bilingual Study

In a move that could significantly reduce enrollment in New York City’s bilingual education program, Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy will propose that the Board of Education end the automatic assignment of students with limited English skills to such classes and have parents choose whether they want their children in programs where English is emphasized, school officials say.

Mr. Levy’s proposal comes two months after a study found several problems with the city’s bilingual education program, including substandard teaching and children who stay too long in the program.

Under his plan, parents of students who do not speak English well would be required to choose one of three programs in which to enroll their children: bilingual education; English-as-a-second-language classes, in which students are taught rudimentary English for several periods a day but may take other classes in English; or newly proposed intensive E.S.L. classes that would provide after-school and weekend instruction in English with the goal of moving students rapidly into English-only classes.

Currently, children who fail a test of English competence are automatically placed in bilingual classes, but parents may request to have them moved into E.S.L. classes. Critics of bilingual education say that the process of switching students from bilingual classes to E.S.L. can be long and arduous and is often discouraged by school administrators.

The proposed changes would become official policy if approved by a majority of the seven-member board. At least three board members have supported aspects of the plan, but they said they had not seen Mr. Levy’s proposal.

The proposal, according to two top Board of Education officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity, is meant to speed up the process and give parents more options. But some Hispanic civil rights and community groups, who fought vigorously to establish the current system in the 1970’s, say they worry that the plan would greatly reduce the ranks of bilingual students and teachers, as well as the financing of bilingual programs.

Currently, 176,000 students take some form of bilingual or E.S.L. instruction ? one in six of the city’s 1.1 million schoolchildren. About half of them are enrolled in bilingual classes and half in E.S.L.

Luis O. Reyes, an assistant professor of education at Brooklyn College, said that the Levy proposal could do great damage to the bilingual education program. Mr. Reyes is a former member of the Board of Education and a former director of Aspira, a Hispanic education and advocacy group.

“There is a danger that bilingual classes won’t be formed and bilingual teachers won’t be hired, in effect making it more difficult to exercise the right to participate in bilingual instruction,” he said.

Mr. Levy, a member of the Mayor’s Task Force on Bilingual Education, refused yesterday to confirm details of his plan, which is expected to be delivered to a board committee on Tuesday. Ending automatic assignment is a centerpiece of the task force report, which is also scheduled to be released next week.

The Levy plan comes after voters in two states ? California, two years ago, and Arizona last month ? decided by wide margins to effectively end bilingual education, requiring all public schools to teach all classes in English. The only exceptions are for parents who petition a school district to place a child in bilingual classes. Colorado is considering a similar measure. Mr. Levy’s plan does not go as far as either the Arizona or California plan.

Details of Mr. Levy’s plan were sketchy yesterday. It was unclear what managerial changes would be required to make the plan work, including how many teachers might need to be shifted or hired. It was also unclear whether board officials could predict how many parents would shift their children from bilingual classes to the other programs.

For years, critics have complained that foreign-born students become trapped for six or more years in bilingual education programs, which offer them substandard academic courses, instead of joining conventional classes within three years, as the program was originally designed to do. One of most vociferous critics has been Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who wants to cap a student’s tenure in bilingual classes at two years and formed a task force to come up with recommendations to improve the system. The mayor’s task force is headed by Randy M. Mastro, a lawyer and a former deputy mayor in the Giuliani administration.

Bilingual classes also provoke different reactions from different groups, with Spanish-speaking parents generally more receptive to having their children in such classes, and Chinese and Russian parents more resistant.

Over 65 percent of the students in the bilingual education program are Hispanic, and the issue has become a rallying point for Hispanic leaders who view the program as a hard-won victory and are adamant that it not be dismantled. They are joined by some immigrant coalitions and a few Asian community groups.

The mayor has charged that bilingual education is little more than a the job-protection program for teachers and administrators. But Randi Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, said yesterday that she supported the proposal. Several of the seven Board of Education members have said publicly that they are in favor of greater parental choice on bilingual assignment, but few have spoken out in favor of the various proposals that have surfaced in recent weeks, except for William C. Thompson, the board president, who has floated his own plan.

Mr. Thompson’s plan calls for informed parental choice, meaning that parents would be told about enrollment options at the outset of a child’s placement in a class, but not eliminating automatic placement in bilingual education.

Both Jerry Cammarata, the Staten Island representative, and Terri Thomson, the Queens representative, have said they support parental choice but are unsure of the details for achieving it.

Mr. Reyes, the former Aspira director, who was instrumental in helping to formulate some of the original bilingual regulations, said the board might face some legal challenges if it adopted the Levy proposal.

The city began developing a bilingual program in 1974 in response to a lawsuit by Aspira. The Board of Education signed a federal consent decree with Aspira, requiring that students who speak limited English be taught at least partly in their native languages.

Since then, board officials say, Aspira, along with some elected officials who represent Hispanic neighborhoods, have been reluctant to change the program. But Hector Gesualdo, executive director of Aspira of New York, said that while he had not seen Mr. Levy’s proposal, he was in favor of greater parental choice. But he added that he would not support any plan that would scale back the consent decree.

Comments are closed.