MANHATTAN — The Department of Education has celebrated its expansion of dual language programs — recently awarding $10,000 to more than a dozen schools for multilingual instructional materials and ongoing professional development.
But at many of the approximately 160 remaining dual language programs around the city, principals are struggling to fill the teaching spots amid a dearth of certified foreign language teachers, parents and experts said.
In the Lower East Side’s P.S. 20, which includes a Mandarin dual-language program, it’s been so hard to find qualified teachers that its fifth-grade Mandarin teacher and fourth-grade English teacher had to flip flop between classrooms from one day to the next for months, parents said.
As a result, the students' schedules were in “complete chaos,” said Michelle Stern, the mom of a fourth- and second-grader at the school.
“The kids were literally being given homework packets from third grade, by subs who wouldn’t even be back to check the homework. That really blew my mind,” she said.
The school saw an exodus of native Chinese speakers from the program that resulted in a loss of $200,000 in funding for the dual language program, parents said they were told.
DOE officials said they are upping efforts to hire more bilingual teachers, offering existing teachers the opportunity to add bilingual education to their skill set and expanding recruitment strategies.
"The DOE is committed to having a robust hiring pool for teaching positions and recognizes the need to hire more bilingual teachers across the city," said DOE spokeswoman Yuridia Peña. "We have actively increased recruitment efforts through traditional certification programs at colleges and universities as well as through alternative routes."
Rosa Riccio Pietanza, of NYU’s Steinhardt School — who is a master teacher and the coordinator of a partnership of 26 schools with dual language programs including P.S. 20 — said the shortage of foreign language teachers has been a growing problem.
“It has become difficult when schools lose a teacher of foreign language, in general,” Pietanza said. “We’re constantly posting positions. We understand the need to encourage more people to go into the field.”
Pietanza explained that some eligible teachers from foreign countries need someone to sponsor their visa, but the DOE won’t pay, forcing the school to pay from their own budget.
The lack of teachers also affects schools that aren't dual-language, as in the case of the elite NEST+M, a K-12 gifted and talented school on the Lower East Side.
When the school's Spanish and French teacher recently left for a teaching job in the suburbs, and the school was unable to find a suitable teaching replacement, they opted to force a class of sixth grade French students to take Spanish.
“It has been difficult to fill this vacancy,” NEST+M principal Mark Berkowitz told DNAinfo, adding that the sixth graders didn't have to take a proficiency test.
“As seventh graders, these students will have the opportunity to pursue either French or Spanish language study,” he said.
Last year, the DOE created several foreign language professional development programs, including a two-day institute for 100 teachers and a conference for 300, according to a report released in the fall by Upper Manhattan City Councilman Mark Levine.
But the vast majority of the city’s roughly 1,100 foreign language teachers still receive no targeted professional development, as compared to weekly development for teachers in other subjects, the paper noted.
Fabrice Jaumont, the education attaché for the French Embassy's New York office who has been instrumental in pushing for dual language programs across the city, said more needs to be done.
He has been fundraising for a recent award by the Cultural Services of the French Embassy to provide $5,000 scholarships to eight student teachers pursuing their Masters in bilingual education.
"Teacher recruitment has become the No. 1 issue in multilingual education after years of neglect of language teaching," he said, noting that some other states have adopted more flexible approaches to recruiting from abroad or out-of-state. "The only thing we’ve found helps is to throw money at students and say, ‘Come teach this.'"