BORN IN BUSHWICK TO DOMINICAN parents, Ariel Pena speaks Brooklyn English like any kid who ever smacked a two-sewer homer in a game of stickball. Yet because of one low store on a reading test when he was 9, the polite, wiry child spent his entire middle-school experience in the same bilingual class, treading through the same textbooks, conjugating the same simple verbs dictated by a teacher who spoke only garbled Spanglish. Every time Ariel’s parents requested a transfer, school officials assured them their son was in the right class. Ariel finally enrolled in a local parochial school, but not before he agreed to take part in a lawsuit with 150 other Bushwick families last month charging New York state’s commissioner of education with allowing too many children to languish for too many years in classes where they did not learn Spanish, English or much of anything else. “I don’t hate bilingual education,” says the 13-year-old, tucking in his shirt at his father’s request. “But in my case they abused it.”
Bilingual education was never meant to be a bottomless bog, where students with Spanish surnames received years of separate and unequal education. It was initiated 27 years ago as a transitional program to give immigrant children a linguistic leg up. But today the nation’s $ 8 billion bilingual industry has taken on a knotted bureaucratic life of its own. More children are entering school knowing little to no English a 50 percent increase in the past decade. And fewer students — particularly Latinos, who make up the vast majority exit bilingual classes after three, or even six, years, experts say. Nationwide, school officials are pressing for new solutions. Rudolph Crew, New York City’s new schools chancellor — fresh off the plane last week from Tacoma, Wash. told reporters he wants to tackle the city’s bilingual sand trap, which costs about 8400 million a year. Classes should be way stations — not dumping spots — for children who need help with English, he said.
Some districts are scrapping the bilingual approach altogether. Three years ago Superintendent Frank Doluisio in Bethlehem, Pa., set up what he calls an “English acquisition program” for half of the former steel town’s 2,600 Latino students. (For the other half, English is their first language.) All academic subjects are taught only in English to students in the program. Students who need extra help with English are pulled out for one to two hours a day of language instruction. Doluisio says his goal is to move all students into mainstream classes after three years. “It’s easy to get comfortable in that native language,” says Doluisio. Until the program’s success can be measured, critics will worry. “By knocking out bilingual education,” warns Sis-Obed Torres-Cordero, a Puerto Rican civil-rights activist, “they’re saying, ‘We don’t want you people coming’.”
Alternatives: Many researchers have studied bilingual programs, and their conclusions differ sharply. A 1992 report by a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group for bilingual alternatives showed no significant difference in achievement between students immersed in English and those who received instruction in both English and their native language. But a more recent George Mason University study of 42,000 students found that students learn English faster in quality bilingual classes than they do in English-only settings.
The George Mason study makes it implicitly clear that better schools tend to run better programs for bilingual students. Rossy Peralta, a Dominican living in Manhattan, has experienced the difference first-hand. After bouncing from one bilingual program where she learned little English to another where students made fun of her grammar mistakes, Bossy found a high school that knows how to reach immigrant children. Operating in the basement of LaGuardia Community College in New York City, The International School has nearly 500 students from 54 countries who speak languages ranging from Thai to Tagalog. Students are eligible to enroll if they score at or below the 20th percentile on an English-proficiency test and have lived in the United States for less than four years. The school’s standards are high. Students work together in groups and sometimes lead class discussions. Teachers, to use the jargon, “facilitate” rather than lecture, mostly in English — by necessity. More than 90 percent of the students graduate and go on to college. “Just talking to people at my school is like reading a global-studies book,” says Bossy. It’s a good school that thinks globally — and acts locally.