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Moms Push to Launch Russian Dual-Language Program on Upper West Side

By Emily Frost | February 9, 2016 7:05pm
 Julia Stoyanovich (left) and Olga Ilyashenko (right) are hoping to launch a Russian dual-language program in District 3 that would begin in September 2017.
Julia Stoyanovich (left) and Olga Ilyashenko (right) are hoping to launch a Russian dual-language program in District 3 that would begin in September 2017.
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Julia Stoyanovich and Olga Ilyashenko

UPPER WEST SIDE — A pair of local moms is on a mission to launch a Russian dual-language program at a neighborhood public school that would split class time between the two tongues.

Olga Ilyashenko said she was passionate about preserving her family's Eastern European culture and couldn't imagine her son not getting to read Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment" or other great works of Russian literature in their original language. 

Ilyashenko, who is Ukranian, and her husband, who is Russian, only spoke Russian to their son Julian after he was born, showing him Russian cartoons and reading to him in their native tongue. 

Julia Stoyanovich, whose family lives in Morningside Heights, shared that same desire for her 3-year-old son, Sava.

"We made a conscious choice to speak only Russian at home, so as to give our son a solid foundation in the Russian language and culture, and ultimately raise him in a truly bilingual and bicultural environment," she said.

When it was time for Ilyashenko's son, now 5, to attend school, the family couldn't find any options for a Russian dual-language pre-kindergarten or elementary school. P.S. 280 in Bath Beach, Brooklyn, has a Russian dual-language program, but there are none where they live on the Upper West Side — or anywhere else in Manhattan.

"We went through an inferno when he went to [pre-k] and everything was in a language that he didn’t understand," Ilyashenko recalled.

She wants to help other parents who speak Russian at home to avoid that experience by starting a program where Russian-only speakers are paired with English speakers right when they start school.

Dual-language programs exist at public schools all over the city, and they are a major focus of Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who has opened 40 new programs during her tenure.

For parents who exclusively speak Russian with their children, preserving the language and culture as they grow older is "hard work," Ilyashenko explained.

"A lot of families struggle now to keep up the language, the reading skills. As soon as [children] go to school, they immediately switch. The language of their friends becomes their language," she said, referring to English-only public schools.

This will be the third time local parents have pushed for a Russian dual-language program on the Upper West Side, Ilyashenko noted. Parents rallied to start a program in 2012 and again last year. 

Census data from 2012 showed evidence of a sizeable Russian population in the neighborhood — 893 Russian-born people — as compared to other Manhattan neighborhoods. Ilyashenko said she's heard from roughly 250 Russian families in recent months who live in the area and are potentially interested, she said. 

From anecdotal evidence, it seems like the Russian population in the city is growing, she said. 

While some Russians moved back to their home country when its economy was stronger, the situation has changed. 

"Politically in Russia, Russians are hitting the hardest times possible and they are coming back [to the U.S.]," Ilyashenko said. 

And the families the mothers have heard from come from diverse backgrounds, Stoyanovich said.

"Among the Russian-speaking parents, there is a mix of ethnic Russians, Jews, Ukrainians and other ethnicities," she explained. "Parents come from different walks of life; some are employed in the technology, finance or advertising sectors, some practice medicine or law, some are educators and academics."

Past efforts floundered not from lack of interest, but from a mismatch between the school offered as a possible location for the program and parents' desires, Ilyashenko said. 

"The third time's a charm," she said.

The families she's spoken to are interested in a program in the southern end of the school district closer to Midtown, where many parents work.

The program wouldn't launch until the fall of 2017 at the earliest, Ilyashenko said. They still need buy-in from the Department of Education and to find a principal for the potential host school, as well as a teacher for the inaugural class of roughly two-dozen students. 

As part of the mothers' research, they have been talking to families who helped found a German dual-language program opening in 2016 in Brooklyn, Stoyanovich noted. 

Another important factor in getting the program up and running is showing that there is interest from English speakers who have selected Russian as a second language for their children over languages like Spanish or Mandarin, Ilyashenko said.

She's confident they can attract interest, citing "a multilingual revolution," in which parents understand the benefit of exposure to other cultures and immersion in other languages, Ilyashenko added.

Bilingual students have been shown to scholastically "outperform" their monolingual peers, and Manhattan parents know this, she said.

Ilyashenko and Stoyanovich, who are currently in the outreach part of their campaign, are looking to hear from parents whose child was born in 2011 or later and are interested in a Russian dual-language program.

They're asking parents to fill out a brief survey and contact them with any questions.

The Department of Education said it would work with schools where there is a critical mass of students interested in the programs. 

“The DOE is committed to expanding high quality and rigorous dual language programs and works to support schools interested in opening programs where there is the required student composition and qualified pedagogues," a spokeswoman said. 

"We are working collaboratively with school leaders and partners in the community to enrich programs and address the needs families.”

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