Shuang Wen, P.S. 20 Outline New Dual Language Programs

Last week, two Lower East Side Schools went before District 1’s Community Education Council to present their plans for implementing “dual language programs.” During the meeting, the Shuang Wen School (P.S. 184) and the Anna Silver School (PS. 20) outlined two different visions for teaching students in two languages, Mandarin and English.

Shuang Wen – one of the most sought after schools in the city – has had a dual language curriculum since 1998. Its innovative and rigorous program has received nationwide attention. But until now, Shuang Wen students have been taught in English during the regular school day and in Chinese during the mandatory after-school program.  Beginning next year, however, the school will become an official dual language school — meaning students will eventually spend half their time studying in Chinese, and half in English.

The Department of Education has been working with school administrators since last year on the conversion. Shuang Wen was one of several neighborhood schools the DOE had been eying as a possible location for the Girls Prep Charter School. In removing it from the preliminary list in December, the DOE cited the need to accommodate Shuang Wen’s expanded dual language program.

At the meeting last week, Principal Ling Ling Chou said the new program will only impact pre-kindergarten and kingergarten next year. Morning classes will be conducted in English, while afternoon sessions will be in Mandarin. Another grade will be incorporated every year, until the entire school has made the transition. Beginning in 2011, there will be a 50/50 split in Pre K and kindergarten classes (half Chinese-dominant speakers, half English dominant speakers).

Meanwhile, another school in the neighborhood is planning to begin a brand new (and much smaller) dual-language program next year.  In kindergarten and the first grade, there will be 25 seats for Mandarin-speaking students who are English Language Learners and 25 seats for students who are fluent in English. In contrast to Shuang Wen’s approach, P.S,20 students will receive instruction in Chinese for one day, followed by instruction in English the next day.

P.S. 20’s energetic primcipal, James Lee, told CEC members, “we are on the brink of something really wonderful.” He urged members of the community to embrace the program, “some other district will become a hub for dual language instruction.” Lee said the school’s location on Essex Street, right on top of Chinatown, is a virtue. Parents from other neighborhoods, such as Park Slope, have been enthusiastic about the program.

There’s one problem, however. For whatever reason, P.S. 20 is having difficulty filling all 50 seats for next September. Lee suggested that the Education Council might be preventing students not in District 1 from enrolling. But CEC President Lisa Donlan said that’s not the problem.

While the CEC wants to make sure every District 1 family interested in the program gets first priority, she said the panel does not oppose enrolling kids from other districts. Donlan was strongly critical of the DOE’s admissions office, which is not funneling applications P.S. 20’s way. Shuang Wen (an elementary and middle school) typically has far more applicants than it can accept. While it seems like a given that any students turned away by Shuang Wen would be placed in P.S. 20’s new program automatically, that’s apparently not happening. DOE officials promised to look into the problem.

So, these two schools have very different issues.  There’s definitely some anxiety at Shuang Wen about the upcoming changes. It’s become clear that at least some of the school’s teachers do not have the proper certification to lead the new dual-language classes. There are also concerns about maintaining the school’s high standards, during the transformation.

At P.S. 20, administrators are struggling to establish a program that could be a key to the school’s survival. In recent years. they have witnessed declining enrollment, as parents gravitated to schools offering specialized instruction. Lee’s message to parents: “Dual language instruction is the future – and P.S. 20 is helping to lead the way.”

If you’re interested in finding out more about the program, you can try to navigate te DOE’s bewildering web site – or you can call the CEC for guidance: 212-587-4094