Mayor Steps Back From English Immersion
NYTimes. June 25, 2003


Reversing his position on how children who do not speak English should be taught, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg yesterday announced plans to strengthen programs for 134,000 students who need to learn English that emphasize bilingual instruction and classes taught in native languages instead of requiring total immersion in English.
As a candidate for mayor in 2001 and in some of the recent discussions on how to improve English instruction, Mr. Bloomberg had favored the immersion approach. His change in position, people involved in drafting the plan said, reflected careful political maneuvering to avoid angering Hispanic voters who helped elect him and whose support he will need to win a second term.
Mr. Bloomberg announced his plan yesterday at a news conference in Battery Park near the ferries to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, where he invoked "the city's historic role as the entry point for immigrants seeking a better life" and was joined by education officials and Hispanic politicians and leaders of Hispanic advocacy groups.
"The goal of the reforms we are presenting today is to give the children of today's immigrants the opportunity of realizing the American dream," Mr. Bloomberg said.
He also insisted that he had not changed his view. "I have never wavered from my belief that if you do not speak good English and have good academics that you will be able to share in the American dream the way everybody would like to," he said. "There is no easy answer. You have to be able to understand and to participate."
The mayor's plans will retain three different approaches to English language instruction already in use in the city's public schools. They are transitional bilingual, in which students learn English as well as other subjects like math in their native language; English as a second language, which focuses on intensive rudimentary English for most of the day; and dual language, in which English-speaking and foreign-language-speaking students learn together in English and the foreign language, like Spanish or Chinese.
The plan to improve English language programs is the last major curricular piece in the mayor's plan to overhaul the schools. And it had been anxiously anticipated, particularly by Hispanic and Asian community leaders who feared that Mr. Bloomberg would do away with existing bilingual and dual-language programs in favor of immersion.
Instead, the mayor outlined a plan to strengthen existing programs by aligning them with the uniform citywide math and reading curriculum he announced in January, by hiring 107 instructional specialists to support teachers of English language learner programs and by creating a new teacher-training academy.
Mr. Bloomberg said the plan would bring more cohesion to the English language programs, would provide more accountability and would set specific guidelines for how much time students spend learning English versus learning various subjects in classes taught in their native languages. And he said the city would spend an additional $20 million to implement the plan.
As an example, officials said a student might spend 40 percent of the school day learning English and the remaining 60 percent of the day learning academic subjects taught in his or her native language.
Opponents of the mayor suggested that he had avoided offending Hispanic constituents by presenting a plan that offered little in the way of change. A switch to immersion, in which students get intensive English-only instruction, would have prompted a huge outcry. Randi Weingarten, the teachers' union president, said the mayor had offered nothing new. "We are all breathing a sigh of relief that they basically did something that is consistent with the practices that we believe work in bilingual education," she said.
Supporters, like Deputy Chancellor Diana Lam, who helped devise the mayor's plan, suggested that it would be a model for the nation by integrating English language learning into a larger educational framework. Under the plan, students learning English will have classroom libraries like mainstream students and new schools will open, including an Asian-studies, dual-language high school in Lower Manhattan.
"When we think about bilingual education, we think about it in isolation from the main agenda," Ms. Lam said. "That's what's different here." She added, "This is about wanting our kids to do so darn well that we're just so proud of them."
The principals' union praised the mayor's plan but complained that principals were not sufficiently involved. "Once again, there is no accountability for anyone but principals even though" the program will be run by people outside the school, the union president, Jill Levy, said in a statement. She demanded extensive professional development for principals and assistant principals.
The present bilingual programs are largely the result of a lawsuit filed in 1974 by Aspira, a Latino civil rights group, which later signed a settlement that required students to be taught at least partly in their native language. Aspira's executive director, Hector Gesualdo, joined Mr. Bloomberg at the news conference and praised the mayor's plan.
Mr. Bloomberg insisted that he had not shifted ground. "I have never changed my view," he said. "I am not a professional educator nor should I be. My job is to pick a chancellor who will go and get the best educators and come up with the best policies and best practices."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company