pre-k for all

New York City will add dual language options in pre-K to attract parents and encourage diversity

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, back right, visits a Mandarin pre-K dual language program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver on the Lower East Side.

Education Department officials on Wednesday announced the addition of 33 dual language pre-K programs in the 2018-19 school year, more than doubling the bilingual opportunities available for New York City’s youngest learners.

The expansion continues an aggressive push under the current administration, which has added 150 new bilingual programs to date. Popular with parents — there were 2,900 applications for about 600 pre-K dual language seats last year — the programs can also be effective in boosting the performance of students who are learning English as a new language.

Another possible benefit: creating more diverse pre-K classrooms, which research has shown are starkly segregated in New York City.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the new programs reflect the city’s commitment to serving all students, even as a national debate rages over immigration reform.

“It’s important to understand that immigrants or people who speak a second language are an asset,” Fariña said. She called bilingual education “a gift that I think all schools should have.”

Included in the expansion are the city’s first dual language pre-K programs in Bengali and Russian, which will open in Jamaica, Queens, and the Upper West Side, Manhattan, respectively. The other additions will build on programs in Spanish, Mandarin and Italian. Every borough is represented in the expansion, with 11 new programs in Manhattan, nine in Brooklyn, six in Queens, five in the Bronx, and two on Staten Island.

In the dual-language model, students split their time between instruction in English and another language. At P.S. 20 Anna Silver, where the recent expansion was announced, pre-K students start the morning in English and transition to Mandarin after nap time. Experts say the model works best when the class includes an equal mix of students who are proficient in each language so they can learn from each other as well as the teacher, though it can often be difficult to strike that balance.

Officials and some advocates view dual-language programs as a tool for integration by drawing middle-class families eager to have their children speak two languages into neighborhood schools that they otherwise may not have considered. Research has shown that New York City’s pre-K classrooms tend to be more segregated than kindergarten. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students are from a single racial or ethnic background. That’s compared with one in eight kindergarten classrooms, according to a 2016 report by The Century Foundation.

Sharon Stapel, a mother from Brooklyn, said she knew early on that she wanted her daughter to learn another language and strike relationships across cultures. So she travels to the Lower East Side with her four-year-old, Finch, to attend the Mandarin dual-language pre-K program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver. On Wednesday, the city announced it will add a Spanish dual language program at the school.

“We really see it as how you build community with your neighbors and your friends,” Stapel said. “It was also an opportunity for Finch to become involved and engage in the cultures and in the differences that she could see in the classrooms — and really celebrate that difference.”

Citywide, about 13 percent of students are learning English as a new language. That number does not include pre-K since the state does not have a way to identify students’ language status before kindergarten. However, based on census data, it is estimated that 30 percent of three- and four-year-olds in New York are English learners.

Dual-language programs can benefit students who are still learning English — more so than English-only instruction. Nationally and in New York City, students who are learning English are less likely to pass standardized tests and graduate from high school. In one study, students who enrolled in dual-language courses in kindergarten gained the equivalent of one year of reading instruction by eighth grade, compared with their peers who received English-only instruction.

The city has been under pressure to improve outcomes for English learners. Under the previous administration, New York City was placed on a state “corrective action plan” that required the education department to open 125 new bilingual programs by 2013. Though the city fell short of that goal, the current administration has agreed to place every English learner in a bilingual program by the 2018-19 school year.

Among the greatest barriers to achieving that is finding qualified teachers, Fariña said. In some cases, it can be hard to find teachers who are fluent in the target language. In others, teachers who are native in a foreign language may only be certified in their home country, and it can be hard to transfer that certification to New York.

In order to open an Urdu program recently, Fariña said, the teacher, who holds a degree from another country, went through Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification program that usually caters to career-changers or recent college grads.

“I think the biggest challenge we have right now is ensuring our teacher preparation courses are keeping up with our need and demand for teachers who can teach another language,” she said.

choice words

Colorado’s Spanish spelling bee is growing as more students, from different backgrounds, take on the challenge

File photo from 2012 National Spanish Spelling Bee. (Courtesy of National Spanish Spelling Bee)

Almost 50 Colorado students are getting ready to compete this weekend in a spelling bee where they’ll be spelling words in Spanish.

In addition to breaking down words letter-by-letter, in Spanish, students must include special marks, such as accents or capital letters, in the right places.

“One of the common misconceptions is that it is easier to spell in Spanish than it is in English, but it absolutely is not,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director for the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education, the organization hosting the state spelling bee. “They don’t just memorize words. Cognitively, it’s a good exercise for them.”

Most students who participate are native Spanish speakers, but a handful of students are native English speakers who learn Spanish as a second language. Garcia said two years ago, a second-grade girl whose first language was English placed second in the state bee.

“All she did to prepare was read,” Garcia said. “She was just a voracious reader.”

2018 Colorado Spanish Spelling Bee
    When: Starts at 9 a.m. Sat. April 7
    Where: Kepner Legacy Middle School
    911 S. Hazel Court, Denver

    Free for the public to watch

Colorado’s Spanish Spelling Bee is in its third year — and is growing. This Saturday’s competition will be held at a school in Denver, but will include students from 14 schools across the state, including from as far away as Telluride.

“Every year it has been growing,” Garcia said. The first year the state competition included about 34 students from nine or ten schools, he said.

Students from second through eighth grade can participate. The students first participate in a spelling bee at their school to earn a spot at the state competition.

Three top spellers get to go to the National Spanish Spelling Bee in San Antonio.

David Briseño, founder and the coordinator of the National Spanish Spelling Bee, said this year’s national competition is drawing students from about 13 states. Next year, organizers are working to host the national competition in Colorado.

“If we do that, we want to get even more of our kids involved,” said Garcia.

2017 winners of Colorado Spanish Spelling Bee. (Photo provided by Colorado Association for Bilingual Education)

Colorado students were among the first to participate in the national spelling bee when it started in 2011, back before the state competition existed.

David Smith, a librarian at Escuela Bilingue Pioneer in Lafayette, has held a spelling bee for students at the dual language school since he got the job about five years ago.

“Every school should be involved,” Smith said. “The whole idea of a spelling bee is it gets kids interested in spelling, and it just gets them more aware about words and vocabulary. For bilingual students, it’s important to study. There’s a lot of things that are similar in the languages, but it also makes them very aware of the differences so they can be better writers.”

At Escuela Bilingue Pioneer, students have library time as one of their specials (like art and physical education), twice a week. Smith said he has an ability to help students practice spelling and get excited to participate in the competition during that time.

Every second- through fifth-grade student first takes a written spelling test to qualify for the school’s spelling bee. Smith also shares the results of the spelling test with student’s teachers in case it can be used as an extra data point showing how students are learning or give them ideas about what parts of language students might need extra help on.

Smith said that when other educators reach out to him for advice about starting their own spelling bee at their schools, he suggests starting small.

Many of the other participating schools, not all of which have bilingual programs, have students participate in the spelling bee on a volunteer basis.

Smith said many students get excited once they hear about the contest and teachers can encourage more of them to practice and sign up.

Educators say the excitement, and contests, grow as students who get to the spelling bee and don’t win vow to practice more and return the next year.

“If you’re there and you see it,” Garcia said, “it’s really fun.”

Schools participating in 2018:

  • Escuela Bilingue Pioneer
  • Angevine Middle School
  • Ashley Elementary
  • Academia Ana Marie Sandoval
  • Columbine Elementary
  • Valdez Elementary
  • Telluride Intermediate
  • University Hill Elementary
  • Foster Elementary
  • Telluride Middle School
  • Global Village Academy
  • Gust Elementary School
  • Godsman Elementary School
  • Denver Language School

navigating the maze

This small nudge can help students avoid high schools with low graduation rates, according to a new study

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Middle school students write their names down at a high school fair in Brooklyn.

To help New York City students steer clear of high schools that are less likely to graduate students, it helps to whittle down their options.

That’s according to a new study, conducted by researchers across four universities, that provides insight into how relatively small interventions can change the behavior of city students as they sift choose among more than 400 high schools.

Aiming to answer questions about whether the city’s complex high school admissions process can be improved, the researchers gave students in 165 high-poverty middle schools a customized list of 30 New York City high schools with information about each high school. Every school on the “Fast Facts” list had a graduation rate above 70 percent and was within a 45-minute commute of the student’s middle school.

Researchers found that students who received Fast Facts were more likely than a control group to match with their first-choice school and were less likely to match with schools that had graduation rates below 70 percent.

Giving students more information, such as lists of non-selective schools or schools organized by theme, muted the benefits. Students who got the extra details were more likely to match to their first-choice school — but less likely than students who saw only the “Fast Facts” to avoid low-performing schools.

“Providing more information on top of the basic list dampened their use of the tool,” said Sean Corcoran, a New York University researcher who worked on the study. “It’s overwhelming.”

The findings could be useful if the city seeks to make its complex severely segregated high school system more fair. With more than 400 school options and a maze of admissions rules, the system favors families with the time and savvy to more easily maneuver through the difficult process. Even high-performing students from weak middle schools often do not try to gain admission to the city’s top high schools.

City officials say they are already tackling that dynamic.

“Each year, we continue to make the high school choice process easier and more accessible for families,” said education department spokesman Douglas Cohen. He added that the city has provided more translated copies of the high school directory, added more information to the directory and launched a tool called NYC School Finder.

Important questions remain about what is gained by steering individual students toward more high-performing schools. After all, simply attending a high school with a higher graduation rate does not guarantee that an individual student will benefit from that environment. Additionally, from a systemic perspective, if some students are admitted to more high-performing schools, others inevitably must fill seats at schools with lower-graduation rates.

Corcoran acknowledged these concerns but pointed out that some students can be steered to high schools that go relatively unnoticed — not only to those with competitive admissions processes.

“Everybody knows the brand-name high schools that everybody wants to go to,” Corcoran said. But, he said, more information can lead families to find the “under-the-radar high schools that are performing well but aren’t household names.”

That effect, the researchers found, is more likely among some students than others. Students from non-English-speaking households were more likely to benefit from the Fast Facts.

In a more troubling finding, white and Asian students who received Fast Facts were approximately 14 and 15 percent less likely to match with schools whose graduation rates sunk below 70 percent. Hispanic and black students, on the other hand, were about 6 and 2 percent less likely to match with the low-performing schools.

The differences were notable, Corcoran said, but not always statistically significant.  It’s also important, he said, to keep in mind that all students in the study came from high-poverty middle schools, so many of the white students were immigrants from places like Russia or the Middle East rather than relatively affluent New Yorkers who are already able to navigate the school system.

Still, he said the study’s findings suggested that Fast Facts alone would not resolve New York City’s high school admissions inequities.

“Information is not necessarily an equalizer,” Corcoran said. “If you provide information to everyone, it may turn out that it doesn’t level the playing field, but makes it more uneven.”

This story has been updated to include a statement from New York City education department officials.