PUBLIC school officials and politicians today will debate bilingual education in a hearing at City Hall, but their arguments will not carry much weight at St. Rose of Lima School in Washington Heights. The students and teachers there already have a program that works.
These students, proponents of bilingual education say, are just the sort who need special instruction in their native language. Most don’t speak English when they enter St. Rose of Lima, a Roman Catholic grammar school on West 164th Street. Ninety-seven percent are Latinos, predominantly from the Dominican Republic, and most speak Spanish at home.
Yet they speak English quite well all day at St. Rose of Lima, not only in the classroom but also on the playground. During lunchtime the other day, the boys and girls scoffed at the idea that they needed years of bilingual education. That philosophy had sent many of them fleeing from the public schools.
Elva Alvarez, a seventh grader, recalled arriving from the Dominican Republic in third grade and being put in a bilingual program at a nearby public school. “They taught reading in English, but the rest of the classes were all in Spanish,” she said. “My parents were really worried because I wasn’t learning English.” After two years in the public school, her parents moved her to St. Rose of Lima.
What was her English like at that point, after two years of bilingual education in the public schools? Some of her classmates on the playground responded in chorus: “Baaaaad.” Elva agreed. “At first, I couldn’t understand what the teacher was saying. I was, like, really confused. By the end of the year, my English was a million times better than at the start, but it still wasn’t perfect. But then the next year it got a lot better. Now I feel I know more words in English than Spanish.”
But she still must use Spanish when she runs into some former public school classmates. They are still in the bilingual program, and the odds are that they will stay there, because after fifth grade most students in bilingual programs do not escape.
Meanwhile, success stories like Elva’s are routine in Catholic schools, which still use the traditional immersion method. Joyce Oberthal, a teacher at St. Rose of Lima for 14 years, begins each school year with a kindergarten class composed mainly of children who cannot speak English.
“At the start of the year,” she said, “I’ll repeat words a lot and use a little Spanish. I’ll say a chair is a silla. But they learn quickly. We haven’t been in school quite six weeks, but already the kids can carry on a limited conversation and follow fairly complicated directions.”
By the end of a typical year, Miss Oberthal said, virtually all the kindergartners are able to converse. “There might be one or two who are struggling to speak English, but even they can understand a lot. They just haven’t made the leap to speaking it yet. They do that the next year. By the end of first grade it’s very difficult to tell who came in speaking Spanish and who didn’t.”
But it’s not difficult to tell in the public schools. Most kindergartners who start in a bilingual program are still there in second grade. After four years of bilingual education, a third still aren’t ready for mainstream classes. After nine years, 17 percent are still stuck.
Bilingual educators have long argued that an abrupt transition to English hinders students from mastering basic skills, but there’s scant evidence of that in the test scores at St. Rose of Lima. Of the school’s fourth graders who took the state’s reading and writing test in January, 59 percent passed. In the surrounding public school district, only 36 percent passed; citywide, only 42 percent passed. (And those figures don’t even include all the bilingual students, because the weakest ones are excused from taking the test.)
SOME of the disparity could be due to the kind of homes the students come from: sending a child to a private school requires money and motivation. But St. Rose of Lima is hardly an enclave of affluence. Ninety-three percent of its students fall below the income guidelines of the school-lunch program, a poverty rate that’s nearly double the average for city public schools.
Yet they can read and write better than most public school students, including many who grew up speaking English. Bilingual educators may think immigrants need special help — or, perhaps more accurately, the educators may want to preserve a jobs program for themselves. But the St. Rose of Lima students have figured out the secret to becoming bilingual: stay away from bilingual education.