New York State Intervenes in City's Declining Education of English Language Learner Students

Wednesday, Oct 12, 2011

asian american children.jpgAsian American and other minority students who are non-native English speakers have been increasingly overlooked by the New York City public school system, and on Wednesday, October 12, 2011, the State Department of Education intervened by issuing an unprecedented "Corrective Action Plan" requiring the city to comply with equal education laws.

The state's intervention follows a long history of advocacy and reports by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) and others documenting the educational disadvantages and declining opportunities faced by English Language Learner students, or "ELLs," in New York City.

"We have been advocating on behalf of these neglected students for years. Finally the state has recognized this deep and damaging problem and used its authority to find solutions," said Khin Mai Aung, Director of AALDEF's Educational Equity Project. "This is a major issue for Asian American students, so we view the Corrective Action Plan as a significant achievement and necessary first step."

Why State Intervention Became Necessary

English language learners are entitled to an equal education under both federal and state laws. For example, all New York state ELLs must be enrolled in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes.  In addition, New York City offers bilingual education (where some content is taught in students' native languages) in several languages, including Chinese and Korean. Parents have the right to enroll their children in these bilingual education programs.

However, a 2002 reform effort toward smaller schools severely limited program options for English learners. Originally, new small schools were allowed to exclude English learning students altogether for two years. That discriminatory policy was repealed, but the quality of ELL services at many new small schools remained low. When AALDEF and Advocates for Children of New York (AFC) released a report investigating the impact of reorganizing two large Brooklyn high schools into numerous small schools, the findings were grim.

"Some new immigrant students weren't flagged as ELLs upon enrollment, and others didn't get the right amount and level of ESL instruction," said Aung.  "Even worse, none of the new small schools created a bilingual program to replace the Chinese bilingual program that was lost at Lafayette High School, one of the original large schools."

The graduation rate for ELLs in New York city fell from 29.5% in 2005 to 23.5% in 2007. "Education is a fundamental right," said Aung. "For a diverse city like New York with a flourishing immigrant population, such a failure to support and educate English learners is a matter of ultimate concern."

The New Rules for New York City Schools

The Corrective Action Plan specifically addresses some of the most dire problems faced by the city's ELLs.

1. About a fifth of all new ELLs are not identified within a reasonable time.

The Plan requires better tracking of when language assessment tests are administered, with compliance and reporting requirements.

2. There is a severe lack of bilingual education programs.

125 new bilingual education programs will be added over the next three years, and there will be modest steps for hiring new bilingual and ESL teachers. The Plan also requires better tracking and record keeping regarding long term ELLs.

3. Schools are not providing parents with enough information about their program choices.

"'School choice' has not worked out for ELL parents," said Aung, referring to parents' option to choose their children's school and form of English instruction. Under the Plan, schools must improve outreach to parents about the range of English instructional options and track their choices.

4. Some districts with high Asian American and immigrant populations are particularly suffering. 

The Plan prioritizes the opening of new bilingual programs in specific districts in Brooklyn with immigrant Asian enclaves, including Bensonhurst/Gravesend (one of the districts documented by AALDEF in its report), parts of Sunset Park, Sheepshead Bay, Midwood, and most of Queens.

What Needs to Happen Next

A key component of the Plan is the requirement of annual reporting and accountability measures, and AALDEF encourages the state to publicly report as much of this data as possible. AALDEF and AFC are currently in litigation with the city's Department of Education over a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request for data about ELLs. "Without public reporting, we cannot see how many students have language needs and how schools are meeting those needs," said Aung. "We cannot know how many students are falling through the cracks."

"The Corrective Action Plan is comprehensive and addresses longstanding, ongoing problems," Aung added. "But implementation is always a challenge. We look forward to the city's cooperation, and AALDEF will be making sure it is enforced."

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For more information, please contact:
Ujala Sehgal
Communications Coordinator
Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund
212.966.5932 ex. 217


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