Op-Ed: The Bilingual Advantage

August 11, 2015

Schools Chancellor Carmen FariñaBy Carmen Fariña NYC Schools Chancellor

I grew up speaking Spanish with my parents, who fled their native Spain during its Civil War and settled in Brooklyn. I didn’t know any English when I started kindergarten and the teacher marked me absent for six weeks because I didn’t understand her mangled pronunciation of my last name. Like many of you, I struggled to be bilingual and bicultural, trying to hold on to my parents’ traditions while finding my footing in their adopted land.

Today, approximately 14% of New York City’s public school students – about 150,000 boys and girls – are English Language Learners (ELLs), like I was when I started school. I am proud that this fall, the Department of Education will open or expand Dual Language programs across the five boroughs, offering students the opportunity to acquire fluency in two languages and, at the same time, foster their respect and appreciation for multiple cultures.

Fariña with students

In Dual Language classes, 50% of students are ELLs and 50% are English-proficient students. Both groups of students receive instruction in English and a target second language. Among the programs is the City’s first Japanese Dual Language classroom; other programs include Spanish, French, Haitian- Creole, and Mandarin.

Last year the Division of English Language Learners and Student Support (DELLSS) was created to provide a high-quality education and targeted support to prepare ELLs for college and career readiness. Deputy Chancellor Milady Baez, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who like me did not know any English when she began school in New York City, is the first to lead the DOE’s robust efforts to support ELLs. Ms. Baez has been a champion of ELLs throughout the span of her career in bilingual education.

I dream of a New York City where every child speaks and writes two languages and is a true member of a global citizenry. Dual Language programs make a difference for students and families in our increasingly globalized world. Speaking multiple languages and understanding different cultures is an asset for students, families, schools, and our entire City – and they’re critical skills students will need for highly coveted 21st century jobs.

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You can help bring a Dual Language program to your school if many parents express interest. We welcome any school community that would like to implement a Dual Language program and we will continue to offer planning grants every year to expand this program.

Academic research has demonstrated that these programs contribute to great educational gains. A number of studies have shown that students in Dual Language programs academically outperform other students; other studies demonstrate that when students learn to read in their primary languages, they become more fluent in English. One scientist, Ellen Bialystok, has produced almost 40 years of research showing how bilingualism sharpens the mind.

Dual Language programs will strengthen our students’ language skills, teach them about new cultures, and welcome parents into classrooms in new ways.

As a former ELL, a lifelong educator, and an abuela, I am excited and confident that this initiative is a critical step forward that will put more students on the path to college and meaningful careers.

To learn how to apply for these programs, families can call 718-935-3500 or visit one of our family welcome centershttp://on.nyc.gov/1SZrXpH.

Carmen Fariña (born 1942 in Brooklyn, New York City) is the current New York City Schools Chancellor, the head of the New York City Department of Education. She is a former teacher, principal of PS 6, and Deputy Chancellor and is known as a skeptic of the ability of competition and standardized testing as a means of improving schools. The announcement of her selection by Mayor Elect Bill de Blasio occurred on December 30, 2013. She is the first New York City Schools Chancellor to have had schools supervision training and experience since Board of Education chancellor Rudy Crew.

Fariña was the Deputy Chancellor of Teaching and Learning from 2004 to 2006.

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