Despite Mayor’s School Reforms, English Learners Stuck

(Photo via El Diario-La Prensa)

Spanish-speaking Latino students continue to struggle with school due to language barriers. (Photo via El Diario-La Prensa)

June 26 was the last day of class for public school students, but not for Alberto Aspiazu, a 15-year-old Ecuadorian immigrant. Due to his low academic achievement, he is one of hundreds of students who will go to summer school starting July 8.

“He has trouble with English and he’ll have to go in order to graduate in August,” said María, Alberto’s mother.

At J.H.S. 217 Robert A. Van Wyck in Queens, Alberto was taking two classes that were “helping him” with his new language. Furthermore, he was in an after-school support program four days a week.

Alberto didn’t participate in class, where everyone only spoke English, because he was “afraid of saying something wrong,” but the after-school program is different.

“The teacher is good. We make sentences and she makes us repeat after her, which helps me learn more,” he said; but in reality, his secret for feeling comfortable was simple. “She does speak Spanish,” he admitted.

Alberto has only been in the U.S. for three years, and is one of 159,162 students called English Language Learners or ELLs. Many Latino educators fear this group isn’t receiving adequate support, despite the educational reforms of outgoing mayor Michael Bloomberg.

During his nearly 12 years in office, Bloomberg has closed dozens of low-achieving schools, established exams to measure performance, and given more power to principals with the aim of producing higher test scores. Bloomberg took all these steps to bring greater transparency to the field of education, as he promised in 2002.

Nevertheless, his efforts haven’t yielded significant results in terms of bilingual education. Although ELL students have made some progress, they are still the group with the highest dropout rate and the lowest graduation rate. Among ELLs, 63.4 percent are Latino.

Even so, their future is not a priority on the agendas of the 10 mayoral candidates. In fact, not a single candidate has mentioned this at-risk population in their education proposals.

Besides the political willpower of those who will run the city, the lack of consensus among experts and leaders hinders the adoption of effective measures for helping this large group of students.

According to Kate Menken, an associate professor of Linguistics at CUNY’s Queens College and a research fellow at the Research Institute for the Study of Language in Urban Society at the CUNY Graduate Center, Bloomberg’s educational reform has been “myopic” because it did not take into consideration the impact on children and teens who need bilingual support.

“These students are only being compared with monolingual English speakers, and that’s the problem,” said Menken.

The graduation rate over a four-year period for ELL students has been declining since 2010. On June 17, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced that this figure dropped by almost five points in 2012-2013, ending up at 40.5 percent. Walcott acknowledged that the decrease was to be expected since that year’s ELL group was the first to graduate under the rigorous new system of educational standards known as “Common Core” created by New York State.

The right to bilingual education was won in 1974 with the creation of the ASPIRA Consent Decree, which guarantees bilingual education and English as a second language to any students in need of these services. The ruling was the result of a lawsuit filed by ASPIRA and LatinoJustice PRLDEF (formerly the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund) against the city.

Despite that victory, the lack of funding, certified teachers, and programs in this field has remained an unresolved struggle throughout the administrations of five previous mayors.

Bloomberg’s determination to change the rules of the game began in 2002 when the state legislature granted him control of the public schools. Despite being in favor of English-only instruction, Bloomberg in 2003 announced a $20 million investment to foster bilingualism in schools.

But in Bloomberg’s fight against low academic performance – as measured by state standardized tests – his administration ordered the closing of 164 schools since 2002, which according to critics has impacted ELLs negatively.

“If you run a school that serves a disproportionately high number of ELLs, you have a greater chance of being penalized,” Menken explained. The reason is that these students tend to fail or have low grades because they aren’t proficient in English, the language of the official exams.

“The federal government is the source of this policy” which was founded under former president George Bush’s 2001 education reform, known as No Child Left Behind.

This law requires states to develop and report on assessments that evaluate the linguistic ability of students with limited English proficiency. New York does so through the annual NYSESLAT (New York State English as a Second Language Assessment Test) exam.

Alberto, for example, passed the NYSESLAT, but failed his English class, which is why he will go to summer school.

President Barack Obama put even more pressure on school districts with his program “Race to the Top,” which grants additional funding to whomever makes more of an effort to improve education.

The opening of new and smaller schools has shown that the mayor’s goal is to increase the number of graduates. In fact, the new institutions have a graduation rate of 70.5 percent compared to 38 percent of the schools that closed.

Some critics say that the new system only teaches students to pass exams, not to learn in-depth.

“The problem is that 80 percent of the graduates aren’t ready for college,” said Daniel Abreu, a retired bilingual education teacher. The Department of Education (DOE), disagrees, saying 44 percent are not prepared for higher education.

Under Bloomberg’s leadership, another part of transforming the school system included giving more decision-making power to principals – many of whom are not certified to help ELLs – who now oversee part of their schools’ budgets and choose which programs to offer.

According to Luis Reyes, director of education programs at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, it is as if the DOE were telling them: “We’re giving you money and power. The process doesn’t matter to us; the results do.”

The study No Child Left Bilingual, conducted by Menken and researcher Cristian Solorza in 10 schools, examined how bilingual programs are being eliminated because of the pressure to churn out higher scores and more graduates. They found that during 2010-2011, only 22.3 percent of ELL students were in a specialized bilingual program.

They also found that 70 percent were taking ESL, the most common type of program. In 2003, the ratio of these two groups was almost equal.

“All of the principals who were interviewed pointed to accountability” through better scores on state exams as the main reason for ending their bilingual programs and favoring English-only instruction, according to the study.

Good news

However, not all the news is bad. During the most recent school year, the DOE created 60 new bilingual programs in 54 schools. And it plans to open 78 more programs next year.

Another sign of progress experts recognize is that the DOE has identified subgroups of at-risk students such as Students with Interrupted Formal Education (SIFE), which make up 10 percent of all ELLs.

“Five thousand students like these enter the school system each year,” said Angélica Infante, director of the DOE’s Office of English Language Learners. “Many of them reach ninth grade and some don’t even have basic levels of literacy in their native language,” she added. As a result, learning English is more complicated for them.

Chancellor Walcott is no stranger to criticism, but he stands behind the positive impact of the reforms on the nation’s largest school system.

“We’re focusing on making accountability transparent and that’s what we’ve been pushing for the last 11 years,” he said. Walcott maintained that throughout that time period, “I haven’t seen any evidence of students who may have been neglected or who haven’t been offered bilingual education.”

Walcott also denied the deliberate shutdown of bilingual programs.

“According to state laws, we have to provide extensive documentation on why a student is going to school or not. We have to follow very strict guidelines and the reality doesn’t come close to the criticism.”

Infante – whose tenure has been recognized by Walcott and even by opponents of the DOE – said that her office has strived to respond to educators’ concerns.

“Over the past three years, we have been concentrating on the professional development of school staff,” she said. One of the chief concerns of ELL teachers is that principals aren’t on the same page when it comes to their demands.

To address the issue, for example, a program for principals about bilingual education was developed with the backing of the state, the CUNY-New York State Initiative on Emergent Bilinguals, which Menken helped create.

A different future

When ELL students finally leave bilingual programs, statistics show that they tend to perform better academically than other groups, including students without English language proficiency problems.

Their graduation rate is 78.9 percent compared to an average of 60 percent.

Noquel Matos, 22, is one example. He graduated in 2007 from the Gregorio Luperon High School for Science and Mathematics in Upper Manhattan, a “model” school that only serves 476 recently-arrived immigrants.

Matos has two university degrees – the most recent one from Harvard – and he is currently the deputy campaign director for City Councilman Ydanis Rodríguez.

He is grateful for the support he received at Gregorio Luperon, but warned that one of the barriers to overcome is that all of the students at the school speak Spanish.

“If you’re not committed 100 percent, it’s not the most stimulating environment,” he said.

The numbers game

New York City has the most extensive public school system in the country. Some statistics:

  • The system is made up of 1.1 million students.

  • 170 different languages are spoken in the city’s classrooms.

  • There are 1,700 public schools in the city.

  • 159,162 (14%) of the student body at these schools are ELLs.

  • 57% of ELLs were born in the United States.

  • 63.4% are Latino.

  • 21% have some kind of disability.

The following languages are the most commonly spoken among ELLs:

  • Spanish (63.4%)

  • Chinese (13.6%)

  • Bengali (3.9%)

  • Arabic (3.6%)

  • Haitian Creole (2.5%)

  • Russian (2.1%)

According to Menken’s and Solorza’s research, in the 2002-2003 school year:

  • 39.7% of ELLs took part in some type of bilingual program.

  • 53.4% of ELLs received ESL instruction.

In the 2010-2011 school year:

  • 22.3% of ELLs took part in some type of bilingual program.

  • 70.2% of ELLs received ESL instruction.

ELL graduation rates by year

  • 2007: 25.1%

  • 2008: 40.1%

  • 2009: 44.4%

  • 2010: 46.1%

  • 2011: 45.1%

  • 2012: 40.5%

New York offers three academic programs for ELLs. By law, if schools in a certain district don’t have one of these programs, parents can enroll their children at a school outside their zone.

  1. ESL (English as a Second Language): English-only instruction that doesn’t take specialized bilingual education into account.
  2. Dual language: instruction is provided equally in two languages.
  3. Transitional bilingual education: favored by experts because it mostly uses the student’s native language and gradually incorporates English.


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