Learning Two Languages Equally

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English speakers welcome in this bilingual program

By Isha Dandavate

Most schools help recently immigrated students transition into an English-based education system. P.S. 75 promotes a bilingual learning environment instead. The dual language program integrates both native English-speakers and native Spanish-speakers into one classroom so both groups of students can learn from each other.

“The program is considered an additive program, because you’re adding Spanish rather than replacing the second language with English,” said Assistant Principal Tori Hunt. P.S. 75 on West End Avenue was one of the first in New York City to implement a dual language program, Hunt said. Many schools have transitional bilingual programs or ESL programs, which help non-native English speakers to transition into an English-taught curriculum, but P.S. 75’s dual language program is different in that it also encourages students who are fluent in Spanish to continue developing their native language as they learn English.

Students must opt into the dual language program—no one is required to participate. First priority is given to children who come from only Spanish-speaking families, and aren’t exposed to English at home. Extra spaces are then extended to students from English-speaking families who can support speaking Spanish at home, whether it’s because the family is already bilingual, or because they commit to learning the language.

Jennifer Friedman, 37, enrolled both her children in the dual language program. Her 9-year-old son Jack and 6-year-old daughter Celia began their bilingual experience at home—Friedman spoke to them only in Spanish, and her husband spoke to them in English. When her son entered kindergarten, Friedman considered various programs throughout the city. “P.S. 75 was in our zone and we looked at other schools, but we really felt this was the best school,” she said. Among her reasons for choosing P.S. 75, Friedman lists the dedication of the teachers, the principal’s strong leadership and the level of diversity.

Teacher Mayra Fernandez says that in dual language classrooms, not only is there ethnic diversity, but socio-economic diversity as well. “Many of our kids come from poor homes,” she says. “It’s nice that there’s a mix because they learn from each other.”

Fernandez, a teacher in the dual language program since 1991, has a class that also includes some students with learning impairments. She works with a co-teacher to help each student achieve his or her individual best. “In a general education class, you’re going to have diversity in terms of ability anyway,” she said. “In this kind of a classroom it’s just a bigger range.”

All teachers in dual language classrooms are bilingual and have dual language certification. They are committed to maintaining the balance between the languages. “If you are learning to add decimals in Spanish one day, the next day you’re learning to subtract decimals in English,” said Hunt. “We’re really deliberate—dividing the language that way, you’re not repeating what you did the day before but you’re extending it.”

Another deliberate move by the school is encouraging parent participation. Events are conducted in Spanish and English. The parent coordinator is also bilingual. “Sometimes we have workshops that focus on Spanish-speaking families,” Hunt said. “We focus on how important it is to maintain Spanish in the household, since the kids can practice English in other places.”

According to Fernandez, the school has also held Spanish classes for parents in past years. “A lot of the parents who take that class are parents of dual language kids,” she said.

The administrators at P.S. 75 have worked hard to make sure the dual language program benefits both English- and Spanish-speaking students. “You’re giving them two languages and opening up many doors in multiple ways—overall academics, a better understanding of multiculturalism,” said Hunt. “There’s research to show it helps kids to perform better academically overall, just like if you learn to play a musical instrument. It’s a wonderful opportunity for the kids.”

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