In New York: Bilingual: To Be Or Not To Be?

The pros and cons of bilingualism create barriers as noticeable as black and white. This complex issue is one that the New York City school board battles over every year. There are those who see bilingual education as being the key to success for immigrant children who come American with limited English skills, and there are others like Frank Borzellieri, a school board member of District 24 in Elmhurst Queens, who are adamantly against it.

“I regard it as an obscene waste of taxpayer’s money and a creation of political ideologists who just want to promote a bulk,” Borzellieri says. “You throw them into a classroom, it’s called immersion.”

Then there’s the other side. Lancy Wong, who works at the Division of Bilingual Education under the Board of Education, sent her older daughter to Chinese sunday school at the age of three. When her daughter entered kindergarten, Wong was called in, and the teacher asked if her daughter had any hearing problems. Wong said that her daughter didn’t understand English. Wong’s daughter scored in the 9th percentile on the LAP test, but at the end of the school year she scored in the 75th percentile.

“In her second year she didn’t need any ESL help, she read a lot, and she made 96th percentile for reading and 98 for math,” Wong says with pride. Her daughter is currently doing equally well in Chinese school and has even begun to learn Chinese composition. She is one of the lucky children who have the best of both worlds.

Whatever the arguments may be, the facts are indisputable. With 972,146 students enrolled in the New York public school system, more than 80 percent of the students belong to minority groups (1991-92 school year). In March 1992 there were 119,780 immigrant children from 166 countries, a 27.5 percent increase over March 1991 numbers (Board of Ed’s Emergency Immigrant Education Census). The diversity is mind-boggling. There are children from Yemen, Bengali and Pakistan, Trinidad, Guyana, Romania and Vietnam, just to name a few.

Bilingual education in New York City started in the mid-’70s. ASPIRA, a Latino education organization group, sued the Board of Education in 1972 on the premise that the system was failing Latin American children, who were dropping out in large numbers. In 1974 a landmark agreement was made. The bilingual education program would ensure that young people would be able to get a decent education in their language. All children these days are entitled to bilingual education if there are at least 20 children who require it and speak the same language; children are eligible if they score in the 40th percentile and below on the LAP test.

Seward Park High School on the Lower East Side has been successful with bilingual education for 18 years. Seward is a school of about 3,000 students, and about 1,200 of the students are in the bilingual program. Within the program, about 80 percent of the students are Asian, and the remaining 20 percent are Latin American or from the Dominican Republic.

Jules Levine, the principal of Seward Park, says that the goal of bilingual education is for the student to be able to communicate in English as well as in their native language. “We do feel that taken the need of risk, there’s a payoff,” Levine says.

Catherine Sid, project director for the bilingual program, says that 90 percent of the kids in the program go into college. Levine feels that those who are against bilingual education see it as a system to prevent youngsters from blending into American culture, but he says that high school students in NYC have tremendous contact to subways, restaurants, industry and are able to soak in the culture. Lorraine Cortes-Vazquez, executive director of ASPIRA, shares

Levine’s views. “We hope that the negative attitude towards bilingual education leaves. There are those who fear that bilingual education will erode the English language.”

Sid says that not having bilingual education is detrimental to youngsters. “We’re talking about high school students who don’t know how to speak the language,” she says. “The textbook terminology is hard for us even.”

Cortes-Vazquez says that she doesn’t believe people are against bilingual education, but they are concerned about the pejorative image it gives. “In every country being bilingual is an asset,” Cortes-Vazquez says. “You’ve got to think in two languages. Bilingual education is something we should all strive for. English dominant children should know a second language, plus the state has a responsibility to educate children.” She also warns that a high economic price will have to be paid if these children are deprived of their education. “What are you going to do with all these unskilled people?”

Borzellieri campaigned against bilingual education and multiculturalism last year and won. He was the only person on a board of nine who voted against bilingual education. “Bilingual education has increased and there are people who are making a living off of it,” Borzellieri says. “The kids can never get out. It’s squandering taxpayers’ dollars. It’s a job’s program, and it’s not in the interest of the children.” Borzellieri also believes that attaining entrance into college is more an issue of race, rather than credentials. “They’ll admit anyone today, especially if you’re a minority.”

District 24 has a good number of Asian students. Borzellieri says it doesn’t matter how many Asians are coming into the district. “I guess you can say in my admiration for the Asian community I have less patience with the idea that they need special help. I think they’re an asset, and they’re doing very well academically and professionally,” he says. “The idea that they need bilingual education should be rejected.”

Whatever the argument, there has been an influx of immigrants into New York City over the past few years. Seward Park High School is located in an immigrant saturated neighborhood. Most of the Asian students can speak Mandarin or Cantonese, and Levine says in the last couple of years the school has seen more youngsters from Bengali. There are currently 50 Bengali students at Seward and a bilingual education program is offered in the language.

Making bilingual education available is hard work. Levine says that it’s sometimes hard to find teachers who can speak both languages, and the classes are small, which is more costly. Levine says that willing youngsters and hard working teachers are the key to the success of bilingual education. Currently, New York City is spending about 300 million on bilingual education. The state is giving more money, and workshops and scholarships are being given on a national level.

Although the debate has yet to be resolved, bilingual education is growing. “Just look at what’s happening in the west and east coast. Count the influx of immigrant children,” Wong says. “You can’t overlook this population. It’s like cocaine babies. You may not like it but you can’t overlook it.” Wong believes that bilingual children can only be an asset to America’s future. “We have started commercial networking with China,” she says. “That’s the biggest universal market we have.”

The results of bilingual education are still ambiguous. “There’s a correlation between good achievement and bilingual supports,” Cortes-Vazquez says. She said that the Board of Education would release a study about bilingual education and its effects on children. It may or may not be a determinant as to which side has the stronger argument.

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