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What You Need to Know Before Sending Your Child to a Dual Language Program

By Amy Zimmer | November 17, 2014 7:33am
 Dual language programs are on the rise in NYC.
Dual Language Programs
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MANHATTAN — Jennifer Friedman didn't start learning Spanish until middle school, and she had to work hard to become fluent. 

Now a bilingual speech pathologist and a mother of two, Friedman was determined to raise her children bilingual and to start them on Spanish as early as possible.

She speaks to them exclusively in Spanish and started a bilingual preschool, La Escuelita, on the Upper West Side in 2002. She also sent her kids to the Spanish dual language program at P.S. 75 on West End Avenue, one of a rapidly growing number of similar programs in schools across the city.

"Becoming bilingual was a big effort for me and I wanted it to be more effortless and more complete for my kids," said Friedman. Her daughter, Cecilia, now a fifth-grader, chose to take the state's standardized math test in Spanish last year rather than in English.

Dual language programs have become trendy in many corners of the city, as a growing number of parents are looking for ways to give their English-speaking kids an edge in an increasingly competitive world economy. The programs also help children who are learning English improve their performance not just in their new language but in subject areas like math and social studies, experts said.

There are 110 dual language programs in elementary schools and a handful more in middle and high schools across the five boroughs. Most are in Spanish, but there are also programs in Chinese, French, Arabic, Bengali, Korean, Russian and Haitian Creole.

MAP: Here are dual language programs around New York City

Next fall, the city will open about 40 more dual language programs. Creating more dual language programs is part of the DOE's pledge to meet state-mandated goals to improve education for non-English-speaking students.

One of the new programs next fall was started by Williamsburg mom Lanny Cheuck and four other mothers, who banded together to create a school they'd want their kids to attend: a Japanese/English dual language program at Brooklyn's P.S. 147.

"I feel like if my child is in a dual language program, she is going to be challenged and engaged," said Cheuck, a Chinese American, who speaks English, Chinese and Spanish.

"It's not just about being bilingual," added Cheuck, whose 3-year-old Chinese and Korean American daughter will start pre-K next fall. "It's about being bicultural. I want my daughter to have a global sense of the world."

Here's what you need to know about dual language programs:

1. There are several different models of dual language programs.

Kids in dual language programs spend at least half of their class time learning in the foreign language.

Some schools spend up to 90 percent of time teaching in the other language and just 10 percent in English, while others slowly ease students into speaking a language that is not English over a year or a couple of years, explained Friedman.

Some programs are taught by bilingual teachers who switch back and forth between languages, while others are team taught.

Some schools spend half a day in each language, while others alternate days. Sometimes it depends on the subject: Some schools teach math, science and social studies in Chinese, for example, and then use English for art, gym and "English language arts."

Many of the programs have "two-way immersion" classes, where, for instance, half the students are from Spanish-speaking homes and half are from English-speaking homes.

The ideal mix is for a third of the students to speak English, a third to speak Spanish and a third to come from bilingual homes, Friedman said. The goal is for the students to learn from each other.

"There are a lot of different models," NYU multilingual studies professor Robin Harvey said. "It depends on the school's population, availability of teachers in the target language and it depends on budget."

2. Being bilingual is good for your brain, research shows.

Many supporters of dual language programs cite the work of neuroscientist Ellen Bialystok, who found that people who are bilingual tend to maintain better cognitive functioning with age and are even believed to have delayed onset in Alzheimer's symptoms after diagnosis.

"Her work shows that bilingualism is good for everybody's brain," said Vanessa Perez, a Brooklyn College professor who teaches bilingual education. "Other research on bilingual students has found that they outperform monolingual students in the long term, but not in the short term."

Students who spend five to six years in bilingual programs end up scoring better on English tests than English-only speakers, she said.

Many educators also prefer dual language programs when it comes to teaching children who are learning English, she added, not only because it keeps them connected to their culture but also because if you stop teaching them subjects like math that require more abstract thought and just focus on teaching English, they lose out on "critical time" for cognitive development.

3. These programs can be challenging for kids.

The workload for learning two languages can be heavy, and some parents have taken their kids out of dual language classes because their kids are struggling, families said.

"A child’s homework load in the dual language program will be at least twice as much as that of students in the regular Kindergarten," stated an explainer from Boerum Hill's P.S. 133, whose Spanish dual language program was the city's most sought-after this year, with a waitlist of more than 200 kids hoping to get into its kindergarten class, according to DOE data.

"It can be stressful," said John Decatur, whose fifth-grade son is in the Spanish dual language program at P.S. 75 on the Upper West Side. But he saw that as a positive: "It really makes kids be comfortable in an uncomfortable environment."

His son, on the other hand, is looking forward to going to a middle school without a dual language program, Decatur admitted.

4. Families need to help their kids become bilingual.

To thrive in a dual language program, kids will need help learning the new language outside of school as well, said Friedman, who gives tours of the program at P.S. 75.

That means you will have to support your child learning Spanish or Russian or Chinese even if you don't speak that language.

"I've had kids who are struggling and frustrated because the only Spanish they get is in school and doing homework is hard," Friedman said. "There are so many resources in New York City: You can go to a tour at the [Metropolitan Museum] in Spanish. You can do soccer in Spanish.  I got my daughter piano lessons in Spanish."

Some parents pick a dual language program without giving it much thought, believing that it's akin to a gifted and talented program and will simply give smart kids an extra challenge. But Friedman cautions against that attitude.

"I say, 'Don't come here because you want a smarter kid,'" she said. "You need to be invested in the concept of bilingualism."

5. Some programs only offer one dual language class per grade.

If a school only has one dual language class per grade, that means your child will be with the same kids year after year.

That's why Decatur pulled his son out of the dual language program at P.S. 87 and put him in P.S. 75's, where there were two classes.

"My son wasn't thriving with that group of kids," he said, "so we jumped ship."

Some schools face challenges with attrition in older grades and have difficulty placing students in the classes since they require a certain proficiency in both languages.

6. Dual language programs create strong school communities.

Parents of students in these programs tend to be very involved, according to Fabrice Jaumont, who works at the French embassy and is also helping parents — who speak French as well as other languages, including Italian, Russian and Portuguese — develop dual language programs across the city.

"The parents [who speak a foreign language] want to preserve their heritage culture and transmit that culture to their kids, so they're very committed and engaged because they want the program to succeed," he said.

He has seen parents in these programs very engaged in fundraising and even helping to motivate the teachers.

"It reinvigorates schools and creates a vibrant community," he said.

7. Being a pioneer comes with challenges.

Dual language programs are growing in popularity, but they're still relatively new, which means there is a shortage of teachers who are certified in bilingual education, and it can be difficult to find textbooks and other materials, Jaumont said.

"The two main issues are finding the resources in the language and finding the teachers who are qualified and have the papers to work here," he said.

Often teachers of dual language programs have to create more of their own materials compared to general education teachers, many said.

"The city and state are developing the Common Core standards in Spanish," said Perez, who is part of the CUNY-New York State Initiative on Emergent Bilinguals, providing schools with professional development and other supports to improve bilingual education.

"It is a lot when you have the Common Core and the materials are only offered in English and you want to teach the Common Core in another language," she said. "It's a lot to ask a teacher to do it all on her or his own."