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Expanded bilingual programs get key Regents committee OK

Allison Manttari teaches her eighth grade E.S.L. students

Allison Manttari teaches her eighth grade E.S.L. students math problems during class at Dawnwood Middle School in Centereach, Monday, Sept. 15, 2014. Credit: Steve Pfost

New York State's growing population of non-English-speaking students, including thousands on Long Island, will get expanded bilingual instruction next year through what education officials call a "trailblazing" overhaul that won unanimous key committee approval Monday.

Intensified classroom services for Spanish-speaking youths and other immigrants from around the globe have won widespread support from bilingual educators and social advocates in recent years. Many school administrators in Nassau and Suffolk counties warn, however, that the changes could mean cancellation of popular programs to pay for extra language instruction.

The potential financial squeeze is aggravated by state caps that limit increases in local property taxes to pay for school services, some local educators said.

The strengthened program, called "Ensuring Equal Educational Opportunities for English Language Learners," passed at a meeting of an 11-member state Board of Regents committee in Albany, amid rare applause from an audience consisting mostly of representatives of education groups and state officials. The vote virtually assures final adoption Tuesday by the full 16-member board.

The most sweeping change would require a school district to provide bilingual instruction whenever 20 or more students speaking the same language at a single grade level are enrolled throughout the district. Current state rules, which mirror federal regulations, require such instruction only when 20 or more English language learners at a single grade level are assigned to one school in a district.

Advocates, some tearful, noted that the vote came near the 30th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Lau vs. Nichols, which established that students not fluent in English have a right to "meaningful" education opportunity.

"We're sort of trailblazers in this field," said Angelica Infante, the state's associate education commissioner for bilingual education. "It's about time that we changed our regulations to support English language learners in their educational trajectory across New York State."

 

More can't speak EnglishEducation officials said the urgency of regulatory change was underscored by 20 percent growth in the statewide enrollment of non-English-speaking students over the past 10 years. Currently, that enrollment totals more than 230,000 students, including more than 30,000 in the Island's 124 public school districts.

The high school graduation rate of students deemed English language learners is only 31.4 percent, compared with an overall rate of 74.9 percent for all students statewide, these officials added.

Bilingual instruction is delivered by certified teachers and other staff in a combination of English and the students' language. Additional instruction is provided by teachers certified in English as a Second Language, who instruct in their own language but are trained in how to help students who do not speak English.

School leaders on the Island acknowledged their responsibility to educate students with limited English-speaking skills, but added that they may find it difficult to hire extra bilingual and ESL teachers unless the state provides more financial aid for that purpose.

One fear at the local level is that districts may have to tell residents that they must cut advanced courses or other programs to provide more services for immigrants. More than 2,200 youths who entered the United States at its southern border as unaccompanied minors from January through July 31 have been released to relatives or guardians in Nassau and Suffolk counties, according to the most recent federal counts.

Roberta Gerold, president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, said that 11 resettled children recently arrived in her own district of Middle Country, which is in central Brookhaven Town. Hiring an extra ESL teacher for those students would cost about $72,000 in pay and benefits, she estimated.

"I think districts accept their responsibility for educating all students, and we also have to figure out how to do this in tight economic times," Gerold said. "It's going to cause a backlash against a very fragile population."

 

Funding soughtRep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) has said he is working on a bill seeking federal emergency funding for districts to help with costs of educating resettled minors, and Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) has said some form of federal reimbursement should be made.

Laurann Pandelakis of Manhasset, a retired teacher and school administrator now active in Long Islanders for Educational Reform, a taxpayer group, said she opposes expansion of bilingual education on grounds that it can slow development of English skills.

"I think we should move in the opposite direction and get these kids in the mainstream as soon as possible," Pandelakis said.

Education officials said they expect to move students from bilingual classes to English-only instruction as quickly as possible.

Dafny Irizarry, president of the Long Island Latino Teachers Association, noted that bilingual expansion could result in more dual-enrollment classes where Spanish-speaking and English-speaking students learn each others' languages.

"We have to prepare students for a global market, not just the local market," she said.

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