When Amy Andino was 10 years old, she noticed a wave of Spanish-speaking immigrants moving into her South Bronx neighborhood. Her mother, an active member of the community, would often help the neighborhood kids put on plays, and began to notice that many of the immigrant children were going to school, but were functionally illiterate – they could not read the scripts she wrote for them.
After years of teaching, Andino decided to start her own school. And when the Department of Education offered her the chance to have a bilingual program, she grabbed it. “That was one of the first memories that came to mind,” says Andino, thinking back to those immigrant kids she grew up with.
She opened the Academy of Public Relations, a middle school in the South Bronx, at the age of 29. It includes a transitional bilingual program to help kids – many of them recent immigrants — slowly transition to English proficiency.
The school is divided into two sections: the general education, or “gen ed,” population, and the bilingual students. Each grade has about 30 bilingual students, out of a total student body of slightly over 300.
The bilingual program now has a separate application process than the rest of the school, and the spots fill quickly. Last year, there were 30 places for 115 applicants.
Andino estimates that 80 percent of the students in the bilingual program are Dominican, and the remaining 20 percent are from Puerto Rico, Honduras and a variety of South American countries. Most were born outside of the U.S., and have immigrated within the past two years.
At APR, the bilingual program is a close-knit group. “I think it allows students to have a place that they feel that they’re with peers that are experiencing the same hard task of learning a new language,” said teacher Eliza Vega, “and not only learning a new language, assimilating to a whole new kind of culture.”
The bilingual kids at APR have the same curriculum as the gen ed kids, but get translation from their teachers when necessary. Those teachers work in collaboration with ESL instructors. Vega says that the goal is English proficiency: Sixth-grade classes begin with 30 percent English and 70 percent Spanish. By the end of eighth grade, those numbers are reversed.
Of eight students interviewed, half say they preferred speaking Spanish, and half preferred speaking English. “If I don’t understand something in one language, I can understand it in the other,” said Bryin Hernandez, a sixth-grader.
The camaraderie of the bilingual students can present its own kind of challenge. Some students who become English proficient are hesitant to move into gen ed. “They feel so comfortable in their environment, they don’t want to be taken out of the bilingual class,” said teacher Julissa Quinones. She added that this only applied to a small percentage of the program.
The program also attracts families who want their children to maintain and improve their Spanish skills. Daysi Mejia is the mother of Elidenya Pena, a 12-year-old seventh-grader at APR. She says that her eldest daughter, Ashley, didn’t go to a bilingual school, and now doesn’t want to speak Spanish at home. Ashley’s father doesn’t speak English, so they have a hard time communicating. “The more languages she knows, the more she can communicate with more people,” said Mejia. She now plans to send her two youngest children to bilingual schools. Yennifer Torres, an eighth-grader, has tested as English proficient, but her mother worries she will lose her Spanish, and has chosen to keep her in the program.
As a school overall, including the gen ed and bilingual programs, the Academy of Public Relations earned a C from the Department of Education in the 2012-2013 school year.
Teachers at APR are torn about whether they want their students to continue to a bilingual high school. “I have students that I’m pushing towards English high schools,” said teacher Karen Werner. “They’re ready. It’s time to go.” She added, “I have other students who are still very much at the beginning of their struggle with the English language.”
Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of history and education at New York University, said that support for and resistance to bilingual education swings like a pendulum. In one decade, people believed that English immersion is the only way to properly learn the language; in the next, bilingual programs were touted as the only possible solution for a struggling population. He said that right now, the pendulum is in the middle. “There’s a myth out there that people don’t want to learn English. Everyone wants to learn it, and they want their kids to learn it,” said Zimmerman. “The only real issue is — how are they going to learn it?”