New York Doubles Down on Bilingual Education

Thalía Baeza studies at the High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Thalía Baeza studies at the High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Thalía Baeza arrived in New York three years ago with her mother, grandmother and little sister, and a suitcase full of dreams. They had left their native Cuba behind and Guyana, where they lived for a few years, and ventured to build a new life in the Big Apple.

At first, when Baeza started attending a Bronx school, it was not easy. At 13 years old, she was taking eighth-grade classes, but the teen ‒ who had always dreamed of learning different languages ‒ had to deal with a new system in which she felt like she was in the wrong place.

“Even though I already spoke a little English, it was very hard, especially because the school where I started out was one of the worst in the city. The kids were very aggressive, and I did not feel comfortable,” said the student, adding that her life changed in the blink of an eye when she found a bilingual education program that made her dream of broadening her world and her horizons.

“I was able to get into the High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies in Manhattan, which, aside from being very demanding, has a mandatory program to learn Chinese. Thanks to that, I now speak Mandarin and continue to learn it,” said Baeza. She believes that learning new languages gives students many advantages and the chance to have a better life.

Under the same premise, the City of New York continues banking on bilingual education, including a plan by the Department of Education to expand foreign language programs in public schools with an investment of close to a million dollars.

The initiative seeks to have 38 schools add bilingual education to their curriculum between 2016 and 2017. Of these, 29 will be dual language schools and nine will be part of the transitional bilingual education currently teaching English to immigrant children to help them fully integrate into the school system.

“As a former English language learner, I know that a strong education makes all the difference. These new bilingual programs will give students the foundation to succeed in the classroom and in the job market,” said New York Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

“Speaking multiple languages is a tremendous asset for students, families, schools and our entire City, and it is my goal to further expand these programs. Through their participation in these programs, students will learn new cultures and parents will be welcomed into classrooms in different ways.”

Tania Milán, Baeza’s mom, cannot hide the pride she feels when she sees that her daughter is mastering three languages. She adds that she believes that the city’s support for bilingual education leads to a better society and to better opportunities for children in the future.

“She is a very committed girl and, when she sets her mind on something, she makes it happen,” said Milán. She also praised the DOE’s support: “These programs have innumerable benefits because, aside from teaching [students] about other cultures, they make them open their mind, compare other ideas, listen to opinions without judging… It’s not only about knowing the language: bilingual education opens children’s minds to change.”

Li Yan, director of the school where Baeza is learning Mandarin, commended the way the city is broadening bilingual programs and called on parents and teachers to motivate kids to learn new languages.

“Learning a new language opens doors and leads people to more opportunities,” said Yan. “It is the road to success.”

Baeza agrees wholeheartedly. Aside from her Mandarin classes and the rest of her schoolwork, she is part of the wrestling team.

“I have always believed that you must fight for what you want and show that you can accomplish anything if you put your mind to it,” said the teen. Baeza applied to go to China next year to practice what she has learned. “Xie xie. It means ‘thank you’ in Chinese. It’s the best thing I can say to express my feelings about this program.”

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