Levy Details Plan to Adjust Bilingual Class

Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy yesterday released new details of his plan to overhaul New York City’s 26-year-old bilingual education program, proposing that schools be required to move students with limited English skills into mainstream English classes within three years.

While details of the plan have trickled out in recent days, Mr. Levy’s insistence on demanding that schools honor a three-year limit was a new and potentially radical measure. Many students remain in bilingual education programs nine years or more.

Mr. Levy proposed changing the so-called exit test to make it easier for students to leave bilingual programs after three years and he urged giving parents the right, after three years, to withdraw their children from bilingual programs entirely.

As had been reported, Mr. Levy also proposed giving parents far more say at the outset over where their children are placed. He also urged that parents have four options to choose from: traditional bilingual classes; “English as a second language” classes; a more intensive version of such classes; and a program known as dual language instruction. In dual language classes, which are now given in 60 schools, students learn subjects in both English and their native language, sometimes spending one day in English and the next in the native language.

If approved by the central Board of Education, many of the changes, including pilot programs that would start in the fall, could add as much as $75 million to the cost of bilingual education. The proposal is scheduled to come up for a vote in the central board on Feb. 7.

Mr. Levy presented his plan to the board’s subcommittee on bilingual education after two months of research and earlier reports on the topic, including one by the Mayor’s Task Force on Bilingual Education and another by Irving S. Hamer Jr., chairman of the board’s subcommittee. A majority of the board’s seven members have indicated they want significant changes in the program, though it is not clear if all of Mr. Levy’s recommendations will win support.

“We need to fix the programs, and one of my greatest concerns is hearing from the parents,” Mr. Levy said after delivering the report to the subcommittee. “They know their child’s language needs better than school administrators and teachers. I want to hear from them.”

Dr. Hamer indicated after the meeting that he was disappointed with Mr. Levy’s proposal. He said he had hoped it would have more details about how parental consent would work, saying he was uncertain that parents would be given more information. “An uninformed, bad decision by a parent could hurt a child,” Dr. Hamer said.

While finding that bilingual education worked for most students, Mr. Levy found that too many students languished in bilingual education for most of their school careers and that older students suffered most. Only 45 percent of the students who entered the programs in middle school and 15 percent of those who entered in high school achieved sufficient English proficiency to leave during their school career. Some remained enrolled until they reached 21.

Mr. Levy recommended that all the city’s 32 community school districts and its high schools set up programs with the goal of having students who do not speak English as their native language develop English proficiency in three years.

“Students should then exit bilingual and E.S.L. programs.” the report reads. After three years, it says, parents of students who have not met the standards for leaving the program “should be given the opportunity to refuse further bilingual or E.S.L. instruction.”

To assure that more students can leave the program, Mr. Levy proposed a new test for measuring students’ ability to learn in mainstream classes ? one that does not, like the current test, virtually guarantee that 40 percent of students will linger in bilingual classes. About 160,000 of the city’s students are enrolled in some form of bilingual or English as a second language instruction, according to Mr. Levy’s report.

Under the current system, students are automatically placed in such classes if they fail a test of English competence. If parents do not want their child in bilingual classes, they may request to have them moved into English as a second language classes. But some parents of students with poor English skills have complained that they were discouraged by school and district administrators from moving their children from bilingual classes.

Students in New York City schools speak 140 languages, including Spanish, Chinese, Russian and Urdu. But 85 percent of the students in bilingual education programs speak Spanish.

Mr. Levy’s plan would require parental consent at the outset for students to be placed in the bilingual program. Parents would be informed about the four programs through pamphlets and by administrators.

Mr. Levy also recommended that parents be allowed to choose an intensive language program, which would begin as a pilot program at 10 secondary schools next school year if it is approved by the board.

The chancellor recommended an intensive effort to recruit teachers for bilingual programs and for programs of English as a second language. He said that 27 percent of bilingual education teachers are uncertified and 14 percent of teachers of English as a second language are uncertified. He also said that over the next three years, a projected 3,600 bilingual and second-language teachers will need to be hired because of attrition.

On Monday, the Mayor’s Task Force on Bilingual Education released its proposal for reforms in the system’s bilingual program. Mr. Levy was a member of the task force, and much of Mr. Levy’s proposal to the subcommittee was similar to the mayor’s recommendations.

In developing the report, the chancellor waded through a political thicket between Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and board members who are reluctant to make drastic changes in a program supported by many of the city’s Hispanic community and civil rights groups.

For his part, the mayor wanted to go the way of California voters and do away with bilingual education, but conceded that would be an uphill battle. Bilingual education in New York City is protected by a federal consent decree and state law.

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