Latino Parents Decry Bilingual Programs
NY Times
July 14, 2004


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  retribution.

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 Cartoon Network.

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 schools.

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 English.

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 International.

"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 in English.