Latino Parents Decry Bilingual Programs
July 14, 2004
SAMUEL G. FREEDMAN
ON a sultry night in late June, when the school term was nearly over, two dozen
parents gathered in a church basement in Brooklyn to talk about what a waste the
year had been. Immigrants from Mexico and the Dominican Republic, raising their
children in the battered neighborhood of Bushwick, they were the people
bilingual education supposedly serves. Instead, one after the other, they
condemned a system that consigned their children to a linguistic ghetto, cut off
from the United States of integration and upward mobility.
These parents were not gadflies and chronic complainers. Patient and quiet, the
women clad in faded shifts, the men shod in oil-stained work boots, they exuded
the aura of people reluctant to challenge authority, perhaps because they
ascribed wisdom to people with titles, or perhaps because they feared
With the ballast of one another's company, however, they spoke. Gregorio Ortega
spoke about how his son Geraldo, born right here in New York, had been abruptly
transferred into a bilingual class at P.S. 123 after spending his first four
school years learning in English. Irene De Leon spoke of her daughter being
placed in a bilingual section at P.S. 123 despite having done her first year and
a half of school in English when the family lived in Queens. Benerita Salsedo
wondered aloud why, after four years in the bilingual track at P.S. 145 in
Bushwick, her son Alberto still had not moved into English classes. Her two
other children were also stuck in bilingual limbo.
"I'm very angry," Ms. Salsedo said in Spanish through an interpreter. "The
school is supposed to do what's best for the kids. The school puts my kids'
education in danger, because everything is in English here."
And the children had no trouble expressing their own frustration lucidly enough
in English. "I ask the teacher all the time if I can be in English class," said
Alberto, a 9-year-old who will enter sixth grade in the fall. "The teacher just
says no." For the time being, Alberto added, he learns English by watching the
Listening to this litany, I experienced the sensation that Yogi Berra memorably
called "déjà vu all over again." Five years earlier, in the rectory of another
church only a few blocks away, another group of immigrant parents voiced the
identical complaints about bilingual education - that the public schools shunted
Latino children into it even if those pupils had been born in the United States
and previously educated in English, and that once the child was in the bilingual
track it was almost impossible to get out. An association of Bushwick parents,
virtually all of them Hispanic immigrants, had gone as far as suing in State
Supreme Court in a futile attempt to reform the bilingual program in local
Back then, the school system's many critics ascribed the bilingual fiasco in
Bushwick largely to the failed policy of decentralization. What "community
control" meant then in Bushwick was a school district dominated by the
neighborhood's City Council member, Victor Robles ( now the city clerk). School
jobs, including those in bilingual education, were patronage plums.
For years, bilingual education coasted along on its perception as a virtual
civil right for Hispanics. Maybe such a reputation was deserved 30 years ago,
when the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund sued and won a consent decree requiring
that New York City offer bilingual education. But as the innovation hardened
into an orthodoxy, and as a sort of employment niche grew for bilingual
educators and bureaucrats, the idealistic veneer began to wear away.
The grievances of Bushwick's parents point at an overlooked truth. The foes of
bilingual education, at least as practiced in New York, are not Eurocentric
nativists but Spanish-speaking immigrants who struggled to reach the United
States and struggle still at low-wage jobs to stay here so that their children
can acquire and rise with an American education, very much including fluency in
As a candidate for mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg assailed the status quo in
bilingual education and called for its replacement with English-immersion
classes. His pledge rested on firm ground. Reports commissioned by Chancellor
Ramon Cortines in 1994 and Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani in 2000 concluded that
children qualified for mainstream classes more rapidly coming from English as a
Second Language programs than from bilingual ones. E.S.L. classes take place
largely in English; bilingual education in the students' native language.
With decentralization dismantled in 2002 and a hand-picked school chancellor
installed the next year, Mayor Bloomberg seemingly backed away. Diana Lam, the
top aide to Chancellor Joel I. Klein until her ouster, was both a product and
proponent of traditional bilingualism. The mayor now emphasizes improving the
existing bilingual program, despite its demonstrable shortcomings.
WITH Ms. Lam gone, perhaps the mayor and Mr. Klein can fulfill their erstwhile
pledges. Carmen Fariña, the new deputy chancellor, yesterday promised
large-scale reforms beginning next September. What she means by that is not
junking bilingual education or even curtailing its use as much as improving
teacher training and incorporating clear performance standards and oversight.
Yet the Department of Education already has a highly successful model of E.S.L.
instruction in two existing high schools, Bronx International and La Guardia
"Bushwick is a test case of how bilingual programs are actually being
implemented," said Michael Gecan, a national organizer for the Industrial Areas
Foundation, which has worked closely with parents there for more than a decade.
"We have great confidence in Klein. We've found him to be very responsive and
very aggressive. But we've been concerned about the bilingual effort. This is a
large vestige of the old school culture. It remains in the system. And it's
intensively guarded by the local politicians and the teachers' union."
In one respect, though, the bilingual program in Bushwick did subscribe to the
English-immersion approach. Parent after parent in the church basement last
month remembered receiving, and then naively signing, a letter from school that
apparently constituted their agreement to having a child put into bilingual
classes. The letter, recalled these Spanish-speaking parents, was written only