Bi-lingual/ESL courses in New York high schools

I went to my first in-person session of a mentoring program I am doing for high school students tonight. The goal for this program is to get every single mentee into college. That may not seem like a big goal if you come from some privileged middle class background the way I did, but after I came here today, I realized why this goal would be so ambitious.

Every mentor is assigned with a mentee, and usually when you begin, you start with them when they are in the 9th grade and stay with them as a mentor through their 12th grade and final year. I knew my mentee’s English wasn’t amazing from the e-mail exchanges we’ve had, but when we spoke in person, I realized that she almost never speaks English. I asked her about her classes, and she said that every single class is taught in Spanish, as that’s her native language. How is this possible, I thought in my head. This is a public school in the U.S. How could every single one of her classes be taught in Spanish? “What about English class?” I asked her. “What language is that class taught in?” “Spanish,” she said. “English is taught in Spanish.”

So you get taught English in Spanish? I asked. “Yes,” she responded. “We mostly speak Spanish in English, but when we are reading text, we read in English.” No wonder her accent is so strong and she is so hesitant to speak in English. It’s because even in school, she doesn’t have any real place to just practice and speak in and be surrounded by English.

When I was learning French in high school, very little English was spoken in class. When we needed to figure out what a word meant, our French teacher spoke using French to explain what the word meant. In Chinese in college, especially in China, virtually no English was spoken. You learned Chinese by using Chinese and being forced to speak and listen to it.

I am so confused and sad now.

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