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Spanish, English Come Together in Classroom Without Translation
Dual-Language Classes Under Microscope as Mayor Studies Education  Options
New York Sun
May 20, 2003
By KATHLEEN LUCADAMO Staff Reporter of the Sun

If it a Wednesday morning at P.S. 24 in Sunset Park,Brooklyn, don't dare utter English. "Espanol," demands a dark-haired fifth-grader after Principal Yvette Aguirre asks him a question in English.

 The 10-year-old isn't being defiant, he's following the rules.

Depending on the day, his teacher, Petra Zweig, conducts the morning in Spanish and the afternoon in English. The students are split as well: half are Spanish speakers, the rest speak mostly English. Together, they learn two languages.

Dual-language classes such as these account for less than 2% of all bilingual education  programs, but are being carefully scrutinized as Mayor Bloomberg decides how to best educate  134,000 youngsters learning English.

His overhaul of bilingual education, the political hot potato of the school system, is overdue, and some suspect the delay is due to an in-house disagreement.

The mayor favors an all-English approach, yet Deputy Chancellor Diana Lam  has supported dual-language programs.

 Schools like P.S. 24, a kindergarten to fifth-grade school where 16 out of 41 classes are dual language, illustrate the strengths of such programs  and the challenges.

"We are constantly customizing it," said Mrs. Aguirre, who was one of the city's first bilingual  teachers in 1971.

Throughout the school, bulletin boards bubble with lessons in Spanish and English. Red words signal Spanish; Blue or black words indicate English.

There's no translating. One day, for instance, fourth graders read a chapter from "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." The next day they whip out "Harry Potter y la Piedra Filosofal "and continue.

During the English lesson, half the students shine and the others squint to understand. When the teacher switches to Spanish, the same is true, but the English students are struggling.

"I'm always asking Joely what words mean," said Gisselle Diaz, a fifth-grader fluent in English, but spotty in Spanish. Her classmate, Dominican Republic native Joely Jimenez, moved to Sunset Park, a predominately Spanish neighborhood, at age 5.

"The only sentence I knew was Can I use the bathroom, " said Joely, who proudly displays her books of poetry in both languages.

"The students help each other," Mrs. Aguirre said. "No longer are the bilingual students isolated as the Spanish kids over there."

True, experts say, dual language programs don't stigmatize foreign speakers. Instead, they encourage youngsters to retain their native tongue and continue to communicate with their families.

But there's little evidence that immigrants learn English quicker than their counterparts in traditional bilingual programs. Dual language classes are costly each book must be bought in two languages and difficult to staff.

"Dual-language classes are very successful in teaching the other language to the English speaking students, but it's less clear if they end up teaching English to the non-English students," said Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who launched a campaign to eliminate bilingual education.

In most bilingual programs, all non-English speakers learn English for a period a day while studying subjects such as math and science in their native language.  Mr. Unz and other proponents of an all-English approach, argue that immigrants in bilingual programs never master English.  Mr. Bloomberg is bound by a state decree that demands bilingual education.

 Dual-language classes have escaped the intense political scrutiny of the more popular bilingual  classes.

Ms. Aguirre considers P.S. 24 a model she’d like duplicated in more schools across the city. Currently, there are approximately 80 dual-language programs.

"Ultimately, the students become good at both languages," she said.