Tips For Immigrant Families Navigating NYC Schools

This photo, via Feet in Two Worlds, was drawn by an immigrant middle school student for the Urban Arts Partnership's Story Studio Project.

Nancy Bruni, who moved to the United States from Taiwan as a child, works at a non-profit organization for arts education and lives in Brooklyn. A mother of two, she is a public education advocate, volunteer and mentor.

At last count, there were 158,246 English Language Learners in New York City’s public and charter schools.  In 2006, only 45.1 percent of those students graduated from high school, and only 7 percent were college ready.

Sad statistics, but there are programs and schools that can help. Some are better than others, and we, as parents of English Language Learners, need to find the right programs and set up habits so that our children can succeed in their quest to learn English.

I was an English Language Learner back in 1972.  Coming from Taiwan to California as a 6th grader, I learned English the old fashion way: self-imposed language boot camp.

I started by watching old Chinese movies that I was familiar with, and I paid careful attention to the subtitles.  I watched television shows – “Gilligan’s Island” and “The Brady Bunch” — to pick up the American jargon I needed.  I worked on my speech, and used my neighbors to practice.  I labored over my vocabulary, starting with five words a day from a dictionary, and working my way up to twenty words a day. It took me three years to be proficient at speaking English. Writing took a little more time. And it was hard work.

Today’s English learners have it a bit easier. There are English as a Second Language programs, Dual Language programs, and Transitional Bilingual Education programs available for students in New York City. Each program is different, and it serves a parent well to know which one is best for their child.

There are 168 languages represented in New York City schools, with Spanish and Chinese leading the way as the most spoken languages. For many students, a Dual Language program is a great option, because of its growing availability and the in-depth interaction that students have with English-speaking students.  One of the most successful dual language schools is High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies on the Lower East Side, where a 50/50 ratio of English speakers and Chinese speakers learn both in Mandarin and English. The results have been impressive for both sets of language learners. In the last few years, the school has continuously ranked in the top 100 best schools in the United States, according to the U.S. News and World Report’s Best High Schools. With a graduation rate of 97.4 percent and a 76.4 college readiness index, many of its students were admitted to some of America’s best colleges.

Then there are the international schools, which use the Transitional Bilingual Education model, which are a good option for newly immigrated students to consider.  These schools serve students who have been in the United State for four years or less, regardless of language background. The International Network for Public Schools has thirteen schools scattered across Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan and Queens. Classes are small, and English instruction is intensive. Students are able to transfer to a regular high school once they are determined to be proficient in English. One disadvantage is that students are not given many opportunities to interact with English-speaking students.

Of the three available programs, I believe that English as Second Language programs are the weakest, and unfortunately, it is the option that is most available for students who are in elementary and middle school. The way English as a Second Language classes are taught in schools is meant to be remedial.  Students are usually pulled from regular classes to attend ESL programs, giving them a sense that they are separate, somehow different from their peers. The term “English as a second language” is also wearisome.  It gives the students the idea that English is secondary, which reduces the urgency of learning it.

There are good options out there in the schools for newly immigrated students to learn English, but we can’t discount the importance of parental involvement in helping their children to adapt to their new home country.  Here are some tips for immigrant parents, who may themselves be learning English:

1) Forget every rule of your original language, then set out from there, with a blank slate.

2) Get a travel language book – your language to English.

3) Use a dictionary and computer language software.

4) Practice speaking English to strangers.

5) Watch television, and take note of syntax and idiosyncrasies of the language.

6) Encourage your children to have friends outside of their language circle.

7) Parents can promote children’s language learning by learning along with them.

Do anything you need to, but get that English learned.  After all, for most of us, the reason we immigrated to America is to try for the American Dream, and to provide our children a chance at it.  Learning English is the start.


  1. Good to see you here, Nancy. Great advice as usual.

    As someone who immigrated from Haiti, it was difficult for me to help my daughter learn English. I also followed some of your advice in helping her adjust.


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  3. great advice. I will spread this article around!

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