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Upper West Side Parents Push for Russian Dual-Language Program at School

Adam, 12, on a trip to Odsessa, Russia, with his grandparents last year. His parents, who asked that his last name not be used, are part of a group trying to start a Russian dual-language program on the Upper West Side.
Adam, 12, on a trip to Odsessa, Russia, with his grandparents last year. His parents, who asked that his last name not be used, are part of a group trying to start a Russian dual-language program on the Upper West Side.
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Alina Adams

UPPER WEST SIDE — Natalia Iofin, a 38-year-old anesthesologist who grew up in Russia and moved to the United States when she was in her 20s, didn't realize how many Russian speakers lived on the Upper West Side until her kids were old enough to go to the playground.

Chatting with other parents, Iofin discovered that many spoke her native tongue. Like her, many were professionals who had moved to the neighborhood within the last decade.

Iofin's fellow moms shared stories of the difficulty of preserving their language. They taught their kids Russian at home, only to see that effort wasted when they started school and English swiftly became the only language they could speak.

"At age 5 they go to school, and three years later they can't speak Russian," Iofin said. "It doesn't matter if you speak to them in Russian at home. If they go to school, they lose the language."

Iofin and dozens of other Russian-speaking families hope to reverse that trend by establishing a Russian dual-language program at a public school in District 3, which covers the Upper West Side and parts of Harlem.

In bilingual programs, students receive standard curriculum instruction in both English and another language, with the goal of fluency in both.

On the Upper West Side, roughly 19,000 people — or 9.7 percent of the neighborhood — claim Russian ancestry, and an estimated 893 people were actually born in Russia, according to recent census figures. While the number of Russian-born people there may sound small, it dwarfs every other neighborhood in Manhattan except Washington Heights, where an estimated 923 people are Russian-born.

Among the program's backers are parents like Alina Adams, a 42-year-old freelance writer born in the former Soviet Union and married to an American husband. Her kids sometimes watch Russian cartoons and listen to Russian music, and the family occasionally travels to Brighton Beach to see Russian theater.

Putting her kids in a dual-language program appeals to Adams in part because she'd like them to communicate easily and bond with their maternal grandparents, who don't speak English.

Knowing another language has benefits in the workplace as well, Adams said. When she was starting out as a TV producer, her fluency in Russian got her a foot in the door at ABC Sports, because so many ice skaters were Russian-speaking.

"In this life, nobody really knows what will help you and what won’t," Adams said. "The jobs my kids will end up doing probably haven't been invented yet."

Iofin said she and other parents were also impressed by research showing children in dual-language programs perform better academically.

"It's a more stimulating environment for them," she said. "We're in a different world right now. You can't just speak one language. You look at Europe and people speak four or five languages, and it's the norm."

If the parents succeed, the Russian program would be the first of its kind in Manhattan and only the second in New York City, where about 3 percent of the population — or 246,000 people — listed Russian ancestry in the 2010 census.

The only other Russian dual-language program is at P.S. 200 in Bath Beach, and a second is slated to start this fall at I.S. 228 in Gravesend.

I.S. 228 Principal Dominick D'Angelo said the program was "long overdue" at the school, which is also adding a Chinese dual-language program in September.

Russian-language classes are also held elsewhere on the Upper West Side. The JCC in Manhattan started a "Generation R" class four years ago for very young kids to learn the language. The Carousel of Languages, a private language program for ages 6 months to 12 years old, added a Russian immersion class this spring to its roster of Italian, French, Mandarin and Spanish.

The Russian classes were added at the request of "quite a big community" of Russian-speaking parents, said Carousel of Languages founder Patrizia Saraceni Corman. "The community is very, very determined to maintain their language and their culture," she said.

Gathering proof that there's demand for a Russian dual-language program wasn't difficult, Iofin said.

Department of Education guidelines ask parents to prove that there would be enough kids to fill a 25-student class now, as well as two years later, Adams said. Within a week or two, parents assembled a list of 142 families representing 200 kids, enough to meet the required numbers, Iofin said.

The parents also garnered support for their idea from District 3 officials, who have a track record of nurturing dual-language programs.

The Spanish dual-language program at P.S. 84 was the first in New York City in the 1980s. That school added a French dual-language program a few years ago, and there are now Spanish dual-language programs at five other schools in the district.

Parents now need to find a school willing to host the program.

D'Angelo suggested that Upper West Side parents research and visit other programs, and enlist the support of an enthusiastic principal.

"They have to find the right principal who has the appetite for dual language," D'Angelo noted.

Adams and Iofin said they're hopeful momentum for the program will build as word spreads and eventually they'll find a school.

"What people thought were going to be the problems, such as curriculum and teachers and students, are not the problems," Adams said. "The problem is space. District 3 is overcrowded. It's not a trivial thing to move a new program into a building."