Urban Renewal For Tower of Babel

Bilingual Education in the City Is a Monument to Inconsistency

Last fall, Alicia Julian Campos was dismayed when administrators at a public school in Bushwick, Brooklyn, enrolled her 6-year-old daughter, Jennifer, who was born in New York City and speaks English, in an all-Spanish-speaking class for the second year in a row and kept her there against the mother’s will for weeks. Mrs. Campos, a Mexican immigrant, later learned that the move was the result of a mistake in interpreting Jennifer’s test score, but she believes such mistakes happen a lot at a school where administrators try hard to sustain bilingual education.

In East Harlem, school administrators called Jose and Maria del Carmen Ortega to a meeting to urge them to pull their son, Johnny, out of bilingual education classes after he scored above average proficiency in English. While the parents, Mexican immigrants, were nervous that he would not be able to make it in an all-English class, they believed in their son and the advice of his teachers. He is performing well in the class.

The two tales demonstrate how bilingual education programs operate differently in each of the city’s 32 school districts, especially on pivotal issues like parental choice. Tomorrow the Board of Education is expected to approve the largest overhaul of bilingual education in more than two decades and a crucial change will give parents more control over their children’s placement in bilingual education programs. Other changes will make it more difficult to keep a child in bilingual programs longer than three years and will give parents more options, including placement in a dual language program that alternates between English one day and a foreign language the next.

The changes are partly in response to the haphazard and inconsistent way that bilingual programs function in various schools and the wide spectrum of quality in the classes themselves.

Parents and community advocates complain that at some schools children learn too little English, spending almost all their time in front of teachers who themselves may not speak English well or who lack training. Parents say that the exam used to place students in the program is flawed and that the screening process sometimes sweeps children like Jennifer, who do not belong, into the classes. Currently, children who fail a test of English competence are automatically placed in bilingual classes, but parents may request to have them moved to state-mandated classes in English as a second language.

Yet at other schools, like the Bilingual Bicultural Mini School in East Harlem, administrators and teachers do not try to force children into bilingual classes and move bilingual children into mainstream English classes within the state’s recommended three-year period. And the classes themselves are regarded by educational monitors as top-notch. Even though Board of Education guidelines say that parents must be consulted before students are moved in or out of bilingual education programs, many parents in Bushwick have had to fight administrators to move their children, said Sister Kathy Maire, an organizer of East Brooklyn Congregations, an advocacy group that has worked with Mrs. Campos and other Latino parents in Bushwick. She and other critics charge that administrators want to keep bilingual education classes filled primarily to keep teachers employed and help bureaucracy perpetuate itself.

“Parental consent would be a significant change in the way the program functions,” Sister Maire said. “Sometimes these parents don’t realize until their children are in the third grade that they can’t read in English.”

Administrators at some schools shuffle certain students into bilingual education classes when they run out of space in all-English classrooms, critics say. Others push non-English-speaking special education and middle and high school students into bilingual education classes where they can languish without learning English, they maintain.

Proponents of bilingual education say that it would be a mistake to paint bilingual education with such a broad brush. Bilingual education, they say, is not one program, but an array of programs that have varying degrees of success. They point to schools like Johnny Ortega’s, the Bilingual Bicultural Mini School. They also point to Public School 189, the Bilingual Center in East New York, Brooklyn, which has programs in Haitian Creole, Spanish and French that have catapulted students to elite schools like Brooklyn Technical High School and Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan over the years.

The advocates of bilingual education also note that many recent immigrants enroll in public schools with an assortment of social baggage that makes it difficult for them to assimilate quickly, including the poverty of their homes, learning disabilities and illiteracy in their native languages.

“Mother Nature is not a Communist, O.K.?” said Ludovic Dauphin, a bilingual education teacher at P.S. 189, who specializes in teaching mathematics. “She made some of us good and some of us bad. Some of us are intelligent and some of us are slow. So, you cannot put up a target date and say, ‘Oh, after two years, that child should be speaking English.’ I’m not saying you have to leave a child with me indefinitely, either. I’m just saying it takes time.”

The barrel-chested Mr. Dauphin is no softy. He has the teaching style of a drill sergeant. A Haitian immigrant himself, the 25-year veteran of the school system expects his students to learn English quickly. While teaching a seventh-grade class how to locate points on a coordinate plane, he sprinkled some English in with his Haitian Creole, a language that is pronounced phonetically. Many of the students had moved to New York recently from Haiti. Some did not have a formal education.

“Ki sa ou te fe la a? (What did you do?)” Mr. Dauphin asked 11-year-old Elizabeth Louis during a math lesson, leaning over her desk and picking up her paper. She had drawn two unequal squares.

“You see that is one, O.K.?” he said, reviewing her work with her. “Look at the other one. They are not the same lengths. Ekri li nan lot fas papye a (Write it on the other side of the paper,)” he said, flipping her paper over.

P.S. 189, a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school, aims to teach immigrant children major subjects like mathematics, science and other subjects in their native languages to avoid having them miss the basics they need at their grade level.

The schools that function properly help students become literate in their native languages and provide enrichment classes for native speakers to maintain bilingualism, said Eliane D. Clermont, principal of P.S. 189.

The program has 18 teachers and about 450 of the 1,230 students at P.S. 189 are enrolled in it.

During Mr. Dauphin’s lecture the other day, there were two other teachers in the room. Jean Hubert, the special education teacher, walked from desk to desk answering students’ questions, and Nancy Dejean, the regular classroom teacher worked with six non-English-speaking students who had moved to New York from Haiti as recently as a month ago.

The staff at the Bilingual Bicultural Mini School is just as diligent, and the school has become one of the city’s models for efficient programs that quickly move students into English classes. All 18 of the teachers at the school are certified in bilingual education and the school adheres to a rigorous curriculum, said Lourdes Arroyo, the director of the program.

Each morning, students in kindergarten through second grade read the alphabet from colorful cards, chanting the alphabet and saying words that match each letter phonetically. For the letter B in some classrooms, voices rise in song, saying “beating heart: B- B- B.”

The exercise is part of a 90-minute literacy block. During that time, students also receive instruction in English as a second language and in their native language, which is Spanish at the Bilingual Bicultural Mini School, part of Public School 83.

The instruction seems to have worked well for Teresa and Rubi Made, 6-year-old twins, who recently moved to Spanish Harlem from Puerto Rico. When they enrolled at P.S. 83 in mid-September they spoke limited English, said their teacher, Jennifer Urove-Martinez.

Now, the shy little girls know the alphabet and can read simple words. On most days, they sit in a semicircle on a rug, heads bowed, reading words like “hello,” “the,” and “see,” from their phonics books in their class of 25 students. They can ask to go to the bathroom and can respond in English to lessons in class, Mrs. Urove-Martinez said.

“It’s a fallacy that children cannot speak or write in English by the time that they leave kindergarten,” Mrs. Urove-Martinez said of students who enter kindergarten unable to speak English. “We are living proof. When they leave, they have the foundation necessary to begin the first grade. Some make the transition to an English-speaking class. It all depends on the child.”

Johnny Ortega appears to have adjusted well to his fourth-grade gifted class and benefited from a strong foundation in science, social studies and math, said his teacher, Diane Guiterman. “He’s really met the challenge,” Mrs. Guiterman said. “He knows his life science from when he was little and being taught in Spanish.”

Mrs. Guiterman said she was certain that Johnny will meet the standard on the state’s English Language Arts test.

While stories like Johnny’s are plentiful, stories like Jennifer’s grab the headlines. Ada Orlando, the principal at Public School 376, where Jennifer goes to school, refused to comment, as did Felix Vazquez, the superintendent of District 32.

Mrs. Campos, who speaks little English, said that the frustration began last year when administrators refused to remove Jennifer from an Spanish-speaking kindergarten class. Eventually, she gave up. Under Board of Education guidelines, administrators can recommend to a parent that a child be placed in a bilingual education program if a language besides English is spoken in the home. But the placement can only be made with a parent’s consent.

The same bilingual placement happened again in September, Mrs. Campos said. This time, she said, a school secretary told her that Jennifer had not passed the Language Assessment Battery test, the exam used to determine English proficiency, and that she could not be placed in an English-speaking class.

Mrs. Campos obtained the test scores from the District 32 office, which showed that Jennifer scored in the 75th percentile — 35 points above the recommended score to move students out of bilingual education. Shortly after that, officials moved Jennifer to an English-speaking class.

“If a child speaks English, they have a right to be in the English-speaking class and I, as the parent, have the right to choose,” Mrs. Campos said.

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