Wednesday, August 22, 2007

2-language schools put in spotlight

Controversial Arabic program just 1 of 70

Tuesday, August 21st 2007

The Khalil Gibran Arabic school has attracted headlines, but it's not the only foreign-language public school opening in New York this year.

The city has a long history of mingling English-speaking kids with students who speak another language in schools where classes are taught in two tongues, but none sparked a debate like the one that triggered the hasty resignation early this month of Khalil Gibran International Academy's founder, Debbie Almontaser.

The city's first dual-language French elementary schools will open this fall in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx. A new Chinese school is planned for Queens, and several other schools are in the works.

These additions mean the city has more than 70 public school programs designed to turn every kid, regardless of what's spoken at home, into someone who can speak English, plus Spanish, Creole, Russian, Chinese or French.

Khalil Gibran won't formally be a dual-language school this year, but the Education Department hopes it will become one soon. For now, it will teach Arabic as a second language.

Dual-language schools teach core subjects in two languages - sometimes on alternating days, sometimes with one language in the morning and the other in the afternoon. The schools help immigrant kids learn English while giving English-speaking kids a chance to learn another language.

"Whenever I say, 'My kid speaks fluent Spanish,' we'll be at cocktail parties and every head in the room turns and they all say, 'I wish I had thought about doing that for my child,'" said Carolyn Blackburn whose son, Henry, is a fifth-grader at Amistad Dual Language School in Washington Heights. "The advantages are just unbelievable."

So many parents are trying to get their kids into the Shuang Wen School in Chinatown that Principal Ling Ling Chou says she soon may have to limit admissions to kids from lower Manhattan's District 1.

Paul Gamble, a seventh-grader at Shuang Wen, said his Chinese improved dramatically when he was assigned to help newly arrived Chinese students with English.

Supporters of Khalil Gibran, which is named after a Lebanese Christian poet, say an Arabic school is crucial at a time when the country needs Arabic translators, but some right-wing critics claim the school has an Islamic agenda.

Objections have also come from Michael Meyers of the New York Civil Rights Coalition and former New York Civil Liberties Union Director Norman Siegel.

They say they're considering a legal challenge to schools like Khalil Gibran, as they once did to single-sex schools and a planned Latino leadership school.

Dual-language schools strive for a balance of kids, with half coming from English-dominant homes and the rest from homes where the school's second language is spoken.

Meyers called that a quota system, saying, "It's wrong-headed, racist ethnocentrism and racial breast-beating."

Dual-language schools tend to celebrate the culture of countries where their language is spoken, but advocates say they also teach the subjects required in all schools.

"God forbid they should be more educated than anybody else," said Luis Reyes, coordinator of the Coalition for Educational Excellence for English Language Learners.

Maria Santos, who heads the Education Department's office of English language learners, said her office is committed to the schools.

"We have [people] coming new to New York who are very much connected to their homelands ... and they want their children to develop in their home language," Santos said.

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