New York, NY—Parents on the Upper East Side were thrilled when, after their hard work and support from elected officials, the Department of Education opened a pre-K French dual language program last October. The parents, however, had also worked with the DOE to identify a public school on the Upper East Side that would host a K-5 French dual language program so that the pre-K students could continue their second language studies. But on Monday afternoon, the DOE informed the parents that it would not be opening a K-5 program for the new school year in September.
The pre-K French dual language program opened on October 3, 2020 at 355 East 76th Street with a ribbon cutting hosted by Council Member Ben Kallos, which was the culmination of four years of work led by three parents, Stephane Lautner, Nadia Levy and Catherine Rémy.
The green light from the DOE for the program occurred in December 2019 when the executive superintendent, Marisol Rosales, announced in a virtual meeting that she fully supported a dual language education program.
That was followed by another meeting in March 2020 where the DOE’s Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack committed to forming a taskforce to continue the pre-K dual language program for grades K-5.
But then on Monday afternoon, Ms. Rosales emailed parents notifying them that the DOE was cancelling the K-5 dual language program initiative.
“All of a sudden, at the 11th hour, Rosales called a meeting at the last minute. We were able to get 90 parents on that call, and they were furious because they thought that there would be a continuation. We asked what is the reason for the cancellation, and the reasons she gave were flawed,” said Levy.
The first reason Rosales gave was the unavailability of funds. The parents, however, noted that the dual language program doesn’t require extra funds. The DOE uses a “Fair Student Funding” formula whereby each public-school student has a certain budget allocated to them wherever they go. So, no matter which school the students go to, their funding goes with them. In addition, FSF also has additional, automatic funding for students who are bilingual.
Rosales then said that teachers weren’t available but, according to both Lautner and Levy, they have identified teachers.
She continued that the program wasn’t sustainable because there’s no space for seats for a dual language program on the Upper East Side.
But the DOE recently acknowledged in a meeting with the Community Education Council District 2 that Manhattan, specifically District 2, has had the most significant decline in student enrollment because of the pandemic.
“So, families have fled to anywhere else but staying in New York City, and the DOE has the gall to say to us there is no space when there’s a 10 to 20 percent decline in enrollment,” said Lautner.
Both Lautner and Levy pointed out families in the community would be more inclined to stay if the K-5 program was established. They also argue that the program would be 100 percent in line with DOE Chancellor Richard Carranza’s and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s stated goal of offering a culturally responsive education.
Indeed, according to Levy, the children currently attending the pre-K program at 355 East 76th Street are from families that hail from over 30 countries, including Haiti, Ecuador, Quebec, Canada, Lebanon, Morocco, Iran and Belgium. French is an official language in 29 countries, and a working language in 84.
“By their very nature, our efforts seek inclusion and diversity in our schools. We believe that a dual language program in an Upper East Side school would increase the school’s diversity,” said Levy.
“By prioritizing French as a heritage language over zoning, in terms of priority for acceptance, we could pull Francophones from other districts to diversify District 2. This is completely in line with the movement towards more equity.”
The decision by the DOE represents a significant loss to parents, especially for those parents whose children are currently attending the pre-K dual language program and will not be able to continue with their secondary language studies.
“We have said to the DOE: ‘What’s the point of having approved a [pre-K] program if it’s just for one year,” questioned both Levy and Lautner.
Levy has one child in the pre-K program, and she doesn’t know what option she will pursue for her daughter.
“I don’t know, I have to figure that out,” said Levy.
Although Lautner’s two children don’t attend the pre-K program because they’re older, he nonetheless was instrumental in the initiative to help open it because he said he saw a need in the community.
“With that in mind, and expecting good faith partnership with the DOE, I started this initiative and spent hours on it. The initiative is too late for both of my daughters to participate in, but I’m doing it because I’m disappointed that the DOE has dropped in five years five similar initiatives—failing other children similarly that wanted to have access to their heritage and I just find that unacceptable,” said Lautner.
Levy also bemoaned the DOE’s decision. She said on a personal level, it’s been very exciting for her and the other parents see their children learn another language.
“All the families that you speak to, who have children at this pre-K, despite this being the strangest COVID year, were thrilled with the program and this opportunity. It’s sad they are separating from their friends. It’s sad that this one year will be for nothing because it’s not continuing,” Levy said.
In a statement to TAPinto Sutton Place/Lenox Hill DOE spokesperson Sarah Casasnovas said the DOE had undergone an extensive review to try to bring a dual language program beyond pre-K.
“We have been exploring ways to open the potential kindergarten program for months, and after a thorough review process it was determined that due to a lack of existing resources and space the program is not sustainable long-term. We continue to explore other language learning opportunities in the district,” said Casasnova.
Nonetheless, Lautner, Levy and many parents have written to the DOE and elected officials calling for the opening of a K-5 dual language program on the Upper East Side. In a statement, Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright said that as a member of the Assembly Education Committee, a parent of two public school graduates and a former PTA activist, she calls on the DOE to restore and move forward with plans to expand the French dual language learning program in the community.
“Parents have been left out of the conversations with DOE officials and have been told in the eleventh hour that their child will not be able to continue in their cherished program. I stand by these parents in their plea to grant their children the opportunity of a high quality public bilingual education,” said Assembly Member Seawright.
“These programs for bilingualism are proven to improve attention, reading, and foster diversity, engagement, and empathy in children. Students are also able to communicate in their heritage language, a critical cultural and linguistic connection for families. We must support our community’s students and their language diversity.”
In addition, Council Member Ben Kallos said that multilingual education has been a huge benefit to children and their families.
“We are all aware of the many long-term educational advantages a dual language education like this can bring, so let’s act like it,” said Council Member Kallos.
“The faster we bring the program to more of the diverse Francophone families who need it— the better off the children will be. I am incredibly proud of the work we did to make this French dual-language program a reality. However, the work is not over yet, this expansion is very important, and we have to make it happen.”
This story has been updated with comment from the New York City Department of Education.