Will You Be Studying Spanish, Or Spanish?

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The New York City public school system boasts an impressive array of foreign languages students can learn, from Urdu to Japanese, along with more traditional offerings like French and Italian. But in many city schools, students have just one choice: Spanish. That’s the only language outside of English offered in more than 180 high schools, according to the city’s high school directory. That represents nearly half of all city high schools.

The Department of Education says schools decide which languages to offer in response to students’ interest. But the teaching of Spanish as the only foreign language in many schools presents a question for educators: What to do with the tens of thousands of New York kids who already know it?

The answer the city has settled on is to teach Spanish speakers higher-level courses, often emphasizing literature and advanced reading and writing. The DOE’s most recent tally shows some 270,000 students of all ages who reported coming from Spanish-speaking homes. (And the U.S. Census reports about 370,000 Spanish-speaking New Yorkers from age 5 to 17 who also speak English “very well” or “well” in 2006.) “For students who already speak Spanish, the schools design classes in Spanish for Spanish speakers,” says Maria Santos, chief of the DOE’s Office of English Language Learners and Foreign Languages. “They focus on developing more of their literacy in Spanish.”

Santos says her office and DOE are working to promote Advanced Placement courses for higher level Spanish speakers. Some educators say such “dual language education” can benefit students and help them master English. “It actually improves their literacy in that native language that then transfers into English as well,” says Rosa Riccio Pietanza, the city director of the New York State Association of Foreign Language Teachers, a professional organization.

But in many schools, the decision denies students who already know Spanish the chance to take a more challenging curriculum with a broad selection of language classes. “We are not giving them the option, however, of learning other languages,” Pietanza says. “Foreign languages have been put on the back burner.”

Students are generally required to take three years of a foreign language to earn an advanced Regents diploma. But they can earn a basic Regents diploma with just one year of language instruction, and Pietanza says Spanish speakers can place out of that requirement by passing a proficiency exam.

Even the focus on higher level literature and AP classes can shortchange students, particularly immigrants who studied Spanish literature in their home countries, says Deycy Avitia, education coordinator for the New York Immigration Coalition. The issue is a symptom of a broader concern that the city schools do not provide a rigorous curriculum for many students, Avitia says.

“If the students themselves are interested in pushing themselves to learn a third language, then they should have that option and not be tracked to only Spanish literature,” she says. “It’s an issue of equity and making sure that students have an equal opportunity to be prepared for college, and have those options that will enable them to stand out on their college applications.”

DOE language chief Santos says the department is increasing language options, including expanding offerings of Chinese and French in communities where students are interested. But it’s clear that in some schools language options were once much richer. Barry Johnson, a bilingual social studies teacher, has taught at IS 302 in Cypress Hills for 29 years. He says at one point the middle school offered French, Italian and Russian, as well as Spanish. Today, the school offers no foreign language classes at all.

Johnson doesn’t lay the blame on the DOE or the school. Rather, he says, educators have been forced to shift emphasis to core subjects like math, reading and science to meet federal standards, at the expense of subjects like art, music and foreign languages. “There are only eight periods in the day,” he says.

Other trends have diminished language offerings, including the relative rarity of instructors certified to teach foreign languages. “That is a problem that even the Department of Education has recognized, the fact that they have a huge shortage of certified teachers,” says Avitia.

Indeed, Santos from DOE said foreign language instruction is an area where “we’re constantly looking for people.” The DOE’s recruitment Web site, however, does little to encourage teachers of languages other than Spanish to apply. “Please note that vacancies in non-shortage areas such as visual art, early childhood, and foreign languages other than Spanish are extremely limited,” says a note to potential applicants.

Another factor shrinking language options is the rise of small schools. Replacing large high schools with smaller academies has been one of Mayor Bloomberg’s top education reforms. Many of the new small schools don’t have enough students to justify offering multiple foreign languages. “For sometimes financial reasons they are offering one language rather than two or three,” says Pietanza. “When you’re starting with a small school and you start with 100 students, that would give you enough classes to start with maybe one teacher.”

Santos counters that the department is increasing language options. “We are always promoting the expansion of languages because of choice. We would like certainly to promote choice so that kids and parents have choice within the schools.” Often the expansion is in response to interest from students and community organizations – a factor that recently spurred an increase in Chinese offerings, she says.

And because students now apply to multiple high schools rather than simply attending a school in their neighborhood, kids who want to learn a particular language can choose schools that offer those classes. “Some of the schools have embraced multiple languages,” Santos says. “You see kids who are Spanish speakers learning English and taking French.”

But the pressures reducing language offerings – federal requirements, scarce teachers and small schools – show no signs of abating. And with school budgets tightening as the city and state face an economic downturn, the resources to increase language options may not be available in many schools.

For many students, even those who already speak Spanish, the limited options will be just fine, but some will miss the chance to expand their language skills beyond English. “We’re supposed to be the slowest second-language acquirers in the world,” says Johnson. “For my part, I have always found out that the children are quite willing to learn a foreign language.”

– John Tozzi