TARRYTOWN, N.Y., April 9 ? Onassis Tejada spoke no English when he arrived for his first day of high school in America, as a 17-year-old freshman.
Had Onassis, a native of the Dominican Republic, been entering a New York City school, chances are good he would have been put into a traditional bilingual program, in which he would be taught in Spanish and only gradually in English for perhaps the rest of his high school career. Had he been younger, he might have stayed in bilingual programs for seven years or more.
But here in the Tarrytown School District, which includes the villages of Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow and sits along the Hudson River in largely comfortable Westchester County, there is a move to put students like Onassis into regular classrooms as soon as possible. The process, known as mainstreaming, has become state law in California, and even New York City is offering parents more of a choice in whether they want to keep their children out of bilingual classes, in which they are taught largely in their native language.
This district, which sent 85 percent of last year’s graduates to college, has a lot at stake in its stand on the debate on how best to educate students like Onassis. This year, just over half the district’s 2,367 students in elementary through high school are Hispanic, many of whom are immigrants.
Marilyn Mercado-Belvin, the principal of the John Paulding School, all 191 of whose pupils are first graders, and the English-as-a-second-language chairwoman for students through sixth grade, said self-contained bilingual settings “are slightly artificial.”
“We like to see the children much more integrated,” she said. “We don’t ignore the native language, and it’s honored. But the goal is to move them toward English.”
A faster, more immersed approach, school officials said, works better in teaching students English, which, Mrs. Mercado-Belvin said, is how they become members of the community. It also brings the children together socially before inappropriate perceptions become hardened, she said.
It also creates its own momentum, said Katharine St. Vincent, the E.S.L. chairwoman for 7th through 12th graders, who has been teaching in the district since 1971. “There’s a competition to keep up,” she said. “The students see movement and say why wait a year if I can do it faster?”
Similarly, at Sleepy Hollow High School, the principal, Carol L. Conklin, believes that as soon as students know a smattering of English they should be learning in English, not in their native languages.
“If a student hasn’t taken chemistry before and doesn’t know chemistry terms in Spanish,” Mrs. Conklin said, “we’re going to teach it to them in English.”
This district’s mainstreaming accelerated further with the arrival last year of a new superintendent, Howard Smith.
Many critics, including many leaders of Hispanic organizations, disagree with rapid mainstreaming, asserting that immigrant students need to learn English gradually while learning subjects like history in a language they are comfortable in so they will not fall behind irretrievably. What is happening in suburban districts, they say, is the unwillingness of taxpayers to pay extra for bilingual programs, which benefit low-income immigrants.
Mainstreaming is a political decision more than a pedagogical one, said Luis Reyes, an assistant professor of education at Brooklyn College who was formerly a member of the New York City Board of Education.
Dr. Reyes said fast-track mainstreaming sent the wrong message to students, that “they have to subtract what they have in order to give to the community.”
In the 1970’s and 1980’s, when Tarrytown’s program was much smaller, the school district did take a more traditionally bilingual approach, under which the subjects were taught in Spanish. But that was because a lot of the students were Cuban, Mrs. St. Vincent said, and they were expecting to return to their native land.
Now the push is on to put students into regular English classes. New students are placed according to credits and abilities in a Transition 1 class, in which concepts will be explained in Spanish, if needed. Then they are moved to Transition 2 classes, in which “we don’t lapse into Spanish words or phrases to explain,” said Dr. Smith, the superintendent.
When they are deemed able, students are moved on, even during the school year. When they are mainstreamed, they are periodically taken out of classes for tutorials.
In the high school, there is also a resource room for English language learners, which is open all day and after school. Students come in for tutoring, to do computer work and to ask questions. Throughout the district, schedules are set up to allow students in Transition 1 and Transition 2 classes to take electives like gym, music and art in mainstream classes.
The scholastic results of the immigrant students have not been as good as those proficient in English. For the 94 students who entered the ninth grade in 1997 with English proficiency, 94 percent met graduation requirements by June 2001. But for the 23 students lacking English proficiency, only 39 percent met requirements.
Supporters of mainstreaming argue that this is to be expected, given the longer time that American-born students have been learning in English. But such statistics are seized on by critics like Dr. Reyes. “A 55-point gap,” he said, “is a tremendously unequal outcome.”
But school officials point to some complexities behind the numbers. Many students, like Talita Oliveira, came from Brazil not speaking enough English, as she recalled, to ask to go to the bathroom. That was six years ago, when she was in the fifth grade. Now she is a junior and the vice president of the student body, and she is in the English-proficient group.
Mrs. Mercado-Belvin stressed that their approach to non-English speaking students was a work in progress and should not be seen in fixed ideological terms.
“The entire debate,” she added, “has been a dilemma for me. Having grown up in a Lower East Side housing project and in the Bronx as the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants, whose mother spoke no English and father died when she was young, I learned English in an all-English environment. But I saw others not as successful. It’s just not a one-size-fits-all issue, and can never be.”
Tarrytown’s approach could not have worked out better for Onassis Tejada. It has been two years since he arrived from the Dominican Republic. He plans to take English Regents, precalculus, advanced placement statistics, honors physics and honors economics next year, his senior year.
Through it all, he has also worked at a local McDonald’s after school until 11:30 p.m. to help support his family. When he comes home, he has dinner and then does his homework.
“The E.S.L. teachers try to teach you as much English as they can,” he said, saying that he expects to graduate next year and go to college to become an engineer.
“Sometimes it gets difficult, but they just keep encouraging the kids not to give up. The thought comes to mind to quit, but they say, no, you have to do this.”