Teaching Parents About Choices in Bilingual Policy May Be Tough, Educators Say

Educators who work with immigrant students are cautioning that the New York City Board of Education may have a hard time teaching parents about the choices they have to make now that the bilingual education system is being overhauled.

The parents, several educators said, are often intimidated by school bureaucracy and often do not have the time to tend to their children’s education.

The Board of Education voted unanimously on Tuesday to give parents of students who speak little English the chance to choose whether their children go into standard bilingual classes, where most classes are taught in a native language, an English as a second language program, where English is dominant, or two newer options, a more intensive English as a second language program and a program in which students may be taught in Spanish one day and English the next.

The change came after critics charged that parents did not have control over whether to place their children in bilingual or E.S.L. classes and were often not informed about their choices. About 160,000 of the city’s 1.1 million schoolchildren are enrolled in either bilingual or E.S.L. classes, with roughly half the total in each program.

While advocates said that they were satisfied with the outcome of the vote, they voiced concern that parents may not always get the information they need to make intelligent choices, echoing the concerns of at least two board members. Children in the New York City school system speak 140 different languages, predominantly Spanish, but also Chinese, Haitian-Creole, Urdu, Russian and Korean, among others.

Because some families may be new arrivals to the country with precarious immigration status, many parents may not feel comfortable going to schools to request information about the range of programs for students who speak little English, said Luisa Costa Garro, a professor of education at the Bank Street College of Education.

“Schools are not a welcoming place where they can go seeking information,” Ms. Garro said.

Luis O. Reyes, an assistant professor of education at Brooklyn College and former member of the Board of Education, said yesterday that he was skeptical because the board had repeatedly failed to live up to its commitments to the program.

Mr. Levy said yesterday that to help put a plan in place he appointed Edna Vega, superintendent of Community School District 7 in the South Bronx, as the superintendent of the new Office of the English Language Learners, which is to replace the Office of Bilingual Education. Beginning March 27, Dr. Vega will play a key role in evaluating plans to help districts set up programs allowing parents to choose their children’s English instruction. Mr. Levy said that parents would be informed of the programs through pamphlets in various languages and by videotape.

Mr. Levy also said that he was setting up an advisory committee of neighborhood groups and leaders connected to parents and educators of limited English speakers to help outline a plan.

He said that some districts would have choice programs and others would not, depending on parent demand. Details of the parent choice plan are to be worked out by Dr. Vega, he said.

“In some districts there will be fewer than four choices, either because there is not enough money or because there aren’t enough children,” he said.

The board directed Mr. Levy to put a plan in place by June, but said that he could start some elements this month.

In all, Mr. Levy’s office estimates that his plan would cost the board $75 million in the first year alone. Mr. Levy will have to turn to City Hall and possibly Gov. George E. Pataki for the money.

So far, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has been willing to spend about $9 million for summer, weekend and after-school classes for students who speak little English. Whether he is willing to come up with the rest of the money is an open question.

Randy Mastro, chairman of the mayor’s task force on bilingual education and a former deputy mayor under Mr. Giuliani, said that he was certain that the mayor and Mr. Levy would discuss additional resources. He said that Mr. Levy might not need $75 million because the board should be able to pay for some programs with its existing funds.

“I know that the mayor is supportive of the new plan,” he said.

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