Each morning, red, yellow and green strollers roll up 38th Street in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. The train of mothers, all Hispanic, arrives at P.S. 24, an equally colorful building across from sunken subway tracks the D train uses as it rumbles toward Coney Island.
From her seat behind a small desk just through the main entrance, Anna Collado, the school safety agent, smiles broadly and greets each one of the arrivals in Spanish. It’s a job she’s had for 17 years, the last four at this school, and it’s a job she loves.
“I welcome them, make them feel comfortable,” Collado says.
Each afternoon, Magdalena Gutierrez picks up her daughter Brianna from P.S. 24. Petite and stylish, she often stops to talk with the parent coordinator, the principal, other parents or a teacher. Gutierrez is chatty and outgoing by nature and regularly volunteers at school events. Two years ago, Collado was the first to say hello when Gutierrez, new to the neighborhood, walked through the school door for the first time.
“I came in and I saw Anna, and she said, “Hola, cómo estás?” Gutierrez remembers. “‘Oh,’ I thought, ‘she speaks Spanish!’”
The same surprise came again when the receptionist in the main office greeted her in Spanish, too, and again when she first spoke with a teacher. Gutierrez speaks a bit of English, but is much more comfortable in her native Spanish. To her, a school that was operated fluently in both languages was a revelation, especially compared to the school in Bedford-Stuyvesant that her daughter used to attend.
“I didn’t know what this school was,” she says. “I knew, well, it had a lot of culture, that’s all. But when they explained it was dual-language, bilingual, all I could do was say, ‘I’m staying right here.”
Spread across the five boroughs, New York’s 90 or so dual-language programs teach public school students in their native language, or immerse them in an adopted one. Nearly all are Spanish-language like P.S. 24, which has English classrooms as well, but a handful of dual-language programs operate in French, Chinese, Haitian Creole and Korean.
These programs aim to give non-English speakers mastery of their native language before or alongside English-language instruction. Scientists studying the brain and human learning believe that students learn more quickly and have more success is school if they have mastery of at least one language rather than an incomplete grasp of two. It’s a very different approach than was taken by school administrators in previous generations. Critics of the dual-language approach, particularly for students starting elementary school, still argue that English immersion is the fastest way for young children to become fluent. They understand differences in language acquisition in emergent bilingual speakers to be signs of problems rather than a normal development pattern, a notion that most education researchers dismiss as a myth.
Comparing the change in conventional wisdom to how safety labels evolve, Dr. Evelyn Castro says, “It used to be: this may be harmful to your health. Now it says: this is harmful to your health.” Castro is director of the Brooklyn/Queens Bilingual Education Technical Assistance Center at Long Island University, an institute that helps the city and its schools better serve non-English speakers.
“The whole notion before was for people to learn English,” she says, “It needs to be mediated with them continuing their cognitive development.” In other words, children can’t simply put the rest of their education on hold to learn English.
Often overlooked is the role of people like Anna Collado. Nearly 4 in 10 students in the New York City public schools are Hispanic. Roughly the same number speak a language other than English at home. Compared to English-only schools, dual-language programs are better positioned to get parents who don’t speak English involved in the school and in the education of their children.
“When they come in for the first time, they’re a little shy,” Collado says of the parents at P.S. 24. A logbook filled with the names of visitors and a big roll of yellow nametag stickers sits on her desk. “Like they don’t want to come because sometimes they don’t speak the language, they’re not able to explain what they want. They feel a little shy because this has happened too many times.”
“I say, ‘Come on, how you doin’, this is this, this is that, here’s the main office, this is the teacher,’” she adds.
Collado knows all the parents by name, she says. She’s the one they ask when they have questions. And when they forget to send lunch, it’s her desk where they drop it off, trusting that it’ll find its way into the right hands.
Gutierrez remains a convert to the system. Her sister’s children go to a school that got an “A” on its latest report card, while P.S. 24 earned just a “C”, and her sister asks why Gutierrez stays. “She still doesn’t understand dual language,” Gutierrez says with wonder. “A child is learning two languages. She is learning to speak both, write both and read both.” Watching Gutierrez buzz around the parent room after dismissal, it’s clear the benefits of dual language can go well beyond the children.