Banumati Nath, English teacher at P.S. 24, a Spanish/English dual language school in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, gave her 20 expectant third graders some instructions before she began reading aloud a book called Somewhere in Africa.
“As I read the story I want you to envision the pictures, as I am not going to show them to you,” said Nath.
Nath’s students listened with rapt attention. On the class easel were printed some English words embedded in the story: laze, tusk, marimba, stalks, untamed. The task of the students was to figure out the meanings.
“I think marimba is a kind of instrument, looks like a xylophone,” said Andy, who was wearing a checkered t-shirt.
Nath was impressed. But the students had trouble with the verb “stalks” so she decided to act out the word and pretended to look for a book on the bookshelf. Immediately the class screamed “looks” after which one boy pleaded, “Ms. Nath, let Bethany do the acting, she’s good at it.”
P.S. 24 is one of about 90 dual language programs that exist in New York City, most of which aim at making students proficient both in Spanish and English. According to the Department of Education (D.O.E) these programs are intended to strengthen students’ native language development while simultaneously building their social and academic skills in English.
91 percent of the 780 pre-kindergarten to fifth grade students attending P.S. 24 are Latino and 45 percent of the student body are designated English Language Learners (ELLs). Most of the families come from Mexico, the Dominican Republic, various Central American countries, Ecuador, Peru and Puerto Rico.
The diversity and heritage of the students is immediately apparent in the colorful and extensive murals that grace the facade and insides of the school. These represent the immigration stories of families who live in the neighborhood.
Children entering kindergarten at P.S. 24 are placed in all Spanish instruction 90 percent of the time and in English 10 percent of the time. By first grade, time is equally divided between Spanish and English and this format continues until graduation.
This immersion in one language can further comprehension in the second language, claims Jazmine Santiago, a second principal-in-training. She described this process during test taking when children are given the same test in both Spanish and English.
“A child might come across the word square and may not know how to pronounce and decode it in English,” said Santiago. “But when they see the word in Spanish, they are able to decode it, so it’s a benefit.”
Christina Fuentes, P.S. 24’s dynamic principal, believes that such immersion is necessary to counteract the fact that these bicultural children are living in an English dominant world. The idea is that the students simultaneously attain Spanish literacy while they learn English, and will eventually be able to understand and articulate subject matter in both tongues. In addition to the children keeping in touch with their heritage, administrators maintain that bilingualism has long-term benefits, particularly in terms of employment opportunities.
Despite research that underscores the cognitive advantages of bilingualism, many of the city’s dual language schools have a tough time competing with other schools in terms of academic performance. In its last D.O.E Progress Report, P.S. 24 received a B. More specifically, it received an A for environment, D for student performance and a B for student progress. But Principal Fuentes offhandedly brushed off these results.
“Test scores are a fickle measure,” said Fuentes. “Can be an A one year and a C next year and still be doing good quality work.”
But she does acknowledge that her large population of kids with special needs and the English Language Learners struggle with taking standardized tests. (All tests except English are offered in Spanish and English.)
“Most of those kids are not going to be pulling level three and four grades,” says Fuentes. “We understand that and it’s not an indictment of our school and program in any way.”
Fuentes’s comments are backed by Matthew Mittenthal, spokesperson for the D.O.E who remarked that for a school like P.S. 24, the most important indicator of performance was its grade on student progress.
“Christina’s school received a B on its Progress Report, meaning it did fairly well compared to other schools that accept students with high levels of poverty, a large number of students with disabilities, and a very high percentage of students who are still learning English,” Mittenthal wrote via email.
But Kate Menken, associate professor of linguistics at the CUNY Graduate Center and Queens College, believes that the current educational environment, in which the D.O.E has been raising the standard for the English Regents exam, has made it difficult for ELL students to succeed, particularly if the students arrive in the U.S. at high school age.
“I have interviewed principals who have told me directly that they don’t want to start a program for these students because they don’t want to admit them,” said Menken.
“They know they are going to appear to be a lower performing school as by definition the kids will never perform well on a high stakes standardized test that is administered in English,” she added.
Yet Fuentes has earned accolades from the City for her success at P.S. 24. She was awarded the 2010 Sloan Public Service Award from the City of New York for her work with English Language Learners.
P.S. 24’s success seems to be connected is to its strategy of focusing on the social and emotional aspect of children, in addition to language skills. It was recognized as a model for dual language schools in the city and around the country because of a program, established in collaboration with the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, to reduce behavior problems in elementary classrooms.
Parents are forthcoming in their praise of Fuentes and her handling of the school. Magdalena Gutie, originally from Mexico, who has three children at P.S. 24 said that Fuentes is adept at creating an accessible environment for parents.
“The principal creates an environment for the parents where they feel welcome even in the classroom. I became a learning leader volunteer and help in the classroom. There is a very welcome and open-door policy here for parents,” Gutie said, with the help of an interpreter.
Third grader Elias Garcia said he likes the dual language program because knowing two languages will make it possible for him to “help more people.”[audio: elias_garcia.mp3]
Currently all P.S. 24 graduates eventually move on to monolingual schools but Fuentes is working with the D.O.E to see that this changes.
“We are hoping that there will be a dual language middle school soon in 2012 in our neighborhood so that our kids can continue to develop their literacy,” Fuentes said.
Ramaa Reddy Raghavan is a Feet in Two Worlds education reporting fellow. Her work, and the work of other Fi2W fellows, is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundationwith additional support from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation.