Why Queens Schools Need More Dual Language Programs

flashcards_spanish_4_lgWalk through New York City and you’re as likely to hear hola, nín hǎo, asalaam alaykum, nomaashkaar, or privyet as hello. In fact, according to the Department of Education (DOE), 180 languages are spoken in the homes of New York City public school students.

To transition from speaking Spanish, Chinese, Bengali, Arabic, or Russian at home to speaking English at school, many of these kids are placed in English Language Learner (ELL) classes. To serve ELL students, the DOE offers more than 500 bilingual programs in the city’s 1,700-plus public schools. Queens is the borough with the largest language diversity—and it has the largest population of ELLs, as about 30 percent of citywide ELLs attend school here.

Studies have shown Dual Language Programs are the most effective type of instruction and have benefits for both ELL and English-speaking students, according to Kathryn Lindholm-Leary, Ph.D., an expert on bilingual students and dual language education. Dual Language Programs provide half of the instruction in English and half in the native language of the ELLs in the program. Students of the native language are taught alongside English-speaking students so that all students become bicultural and fluent in both languages.

Not only do ELLs in Dual Language Programs close the achievement gap with their English-speaking peers, but native English speakers in these programs score as well or better than their English-only peers in standardized tests in language and math, according to research presented by Lindholm-Leary. Plus, Dual Language Program students develop proficiency in two languages and positive attitudes about other languages and ethnic groups, consider themselves bilingual and bicultural, and feel most comfortable interacting with students of other backgrounds.

Unfortunately, less than 5 percent of New York City’s ELLs are enrolled in a Dual Language program. About 75 percent of ELLs learn through English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction, which uses strategies for English language development with native language support so that students develop language and content knowledge in English. About 20 percent of citywide ELLs are in Transitional Bilingual Education (TBE) programs that include language arts and subject matter instruction in the students’ native language and English as well as intensive instruction in English as a Second Language.

Bringing a Dual Language Program to a public school is not difficult. DOE policy states that a school is required to form a Dual Language Program when the school has a threshold number of students identified as ELLs whose parents have requested that their children be enrolled in the program. For grades K to 8,  the school must have 15 or more ELL students, of the same language group, in two contiguous grades (for example, there are 8 French speaking ELL students in sixth grade and 7 French ELLs in seventh grade). For grades 9 to 12, the threshold is 20 or more students in one grade meeting these criteria. These thresholds ensure there will be enough children to populate a class.

Families interested in bringing a Dual Language Program to a school should contact the principal with the number of families interested and ask her to contact the Division of Portfolio’s Division of Students With Disabilities and English Language Learners to submit an application for a start-up planning grant for the program. The amount offered by the planning grants is determined by availability of funding and may vary year to year. Schools also receive an additional allocation of money from the Fair Student Funding Formula (FSF) for each ELL student to support ELL intervention. In addition, Title III funds are provided to schools that serve 30 or more English Language Learners. Each school also receives principal discretionary funds that can be used to support dual language programs.

NOTE: New York City Department of Education statistics are sourced from the 2013 Demographic Report from the Office of English Language Learners.

Ellen Sturm Niz is an editor and writer living, parenting, and working in New York City. Follow her on Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, and Google+.