New York City, Focusing on Bilingual Education



New York City schools are poised to become the next big battleground over bilingual education. At a hearing tomorrow, Schools Chancellor Harold Levy will propose limits on how much time students in the nation’s largest school system can spend in bilingual programs. NPR’s Claudio Sanchez reports.


About a fifth of New York City’s 1.1 million public school students are not proficient in English. It’s not their first language. Most are enrolled in bilingual education programs, which are supposed to help them become literate in English. Too many of these students, though, some say half, languish in bilingual programs for six years or more and never learn how to read or write in English. Ironically, many don’t even learn how to write or read in their native language, usually Spanish, since 70 percent of the students in bilingual classrooms are Latino.

What New York City School Chancellor Harold Levy reportedly wants to do is provide these students a lot more English instruction, including after school and weekends, and he wants parents to decide whether their children should be put in a bilingual program at all. This fast-track approach is often referred to as ‘immersion,’ a method that school board president William Thompson does not support.

Mr. WILLIAM THOMPSON (School Board President): It is an educationally unsound approach, if you will. It is a ‘sink or swim’ option.

SANCHEZ: An English immersion program removes the academic safety net that students need to succeed, says Thompson.

Mr. THOMPSON: You want to be able to boost kids along, you want to make sure that it is done based on what’s educationally sound. For that individual student, no, I think that what you need to do is not to say, ‘Well, OK, we’ll throw students out.’

SANCHEZ: Thompson says two-thirds of kids who enroll in bilingual programs are between five and eight years old. The vast majority, he says, make the transition to English-only classes in three years of less. Most tend to do better on standardized exams throughout their school careers than students in the general population. It’s the older kids, sixth grade and up, who arrive not knowing English who really are struggling, says Thompson.

But the man who engineered two successful ballot initiatives to dismantle bilingual education in Arizona and California says that the only good bilingual education program is a dead one. Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, says, ‘In New York, as in most states with large immigrant populations, bilingual education is voluntary in theory, but often mandatory in practice.’ Also?

Mr. RON UNZ (Silicon Valley Entrepreneur): In New York City, the programs don’t seem quite as bad in their impact as the ones in California, though they’re bad enough. I think it would be far better if they got rid of bilingual education.

SANCHEZ: Unz says that children who are not fluent in English when they start school, should move into English-only classrooms quickly, within a year. That’s what he told an advisory panel appointed by Mayor Rudy Giuliani. At a daylong hearing on bilingual education last October, Unz was booed and heckled.

Unz, though, is intent on launching a statewide ballot initiative to ban bilingual education in New York. Based on a poll he helped finance, Unz says 79 percent of registered voters and 62 percent of Latinos would support such a ban. So during the next six to 12 months, Unz says his attorneys will study the legal requirements for bilingual education in New York, and find ways to abolish them.

Mr. THOMPSON: Mr. Unz should probably stay in California.

SANCHEZ: School board president William Thompson.

Mr. THOMPSON: A ballot initiative would have to no weight in New York City. That’s not the way policy is done at the Board of Education. That’s not what legally occurs in this city.

SANCHEZ: Tomorrow, no one expects School Chancellor Harold Levy to call for an end to the city’s bilingual education program, but he will propose a lot less native language instruction with the 200,000 students who don’t speak English. I’m Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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