Project AMERICA: where Bilingual Education Fails

In a Biology class at Fort Hamilton High School, a student wrote the day’s vocabulary in both Chinese and English.  In unison, the class read out the words. The teacher showed a genetics chart that pointed to the differences between wild and cultivated species. When they finished the day’s lesson on heredities in plants and animals, the students were assigned a translation exercise for homework.

According to an Office of Research, Education and Evaluation report in the New York Municipal Archives, classrooms operating in both Chinese and English were common in Fort Hamilton High in 1989. Single family homes filled the school’s affluent Brooklyn neighborhood, a community with few immigrants. But Fort Hamilton also served students from Sunset Park and Bay Ridge, where recent immigrants from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, as well as Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries had begun, in different languages, to call the neighborhoods home.

To provide support for these new students, the U.S. Department of Education established Project AMERICA­ in 1987. The program was meant to provide both bilingual and E.S.L. services to students with limited proficiency in English and illiteracy in their native languages.

During its first year of funding, 293 students at Fort Hamilton and Lafayette High Schools were enrolled in the program; 237 of these students were Chinese-speaking and 57 Arabic-speaking. It was the first time either group would be served by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The guiding principle was that if students were both taught in their native language and offered E.S.L. courses, they would be able to meet their full potential in school, regardless of language ability.

Yet, the OREA report would later write that the program, “fulfilled the intent of the objective but not the objective itself.” Fort Hamilton High School offered courses in both Mandarin and Cantonese in all core subjects. However, at the end of the first year, the school didn’t have enough data to show whether it had met its objective for language improvement.

Project AMERICA was established for both Chinese- and Arabic-speaking students, but apart from the name, which stood for the Asian and Arabic Mediated Enrichment Resource and Instructional Career Awareness, it would be difficult to know that. Not a single course was offered in Arabic. A report at the end of the 1989 school year would note that “finding Arabic-speaking staff was apparently a problem.”

Instead, the educational assistant­, the only staff member on the project who spoke Arabic, translated and explained concepts and vocabulary for students and ensured that Arabic-speaking students correctly copied the lessons into their notebooks. At the end the second year, citing a drop in enrollment, Project AMERICA would discontinue the Arabic-language component of the program, failing the demographic the program was meant to serve.

Project AMERICA was supposed to provide more than just language services. The program was also intended to improve student’s attitude towards school and create pride and respect for both their own cultural heritage and American traditions. One resource specialist noted that she began to counsel students on both academic and personal issues. It was a support system for teenagers in a foreign country, contending with the life-changing transitions of immigration and adolescence.

Many imagine bilingual classrooms to be a supplementary resource – something for parents who want their kids to grow up learning a second language. But bilingual education programs are often created to work in tangent with E.S.L. programs to serve immigrant communities in NYC.

These projects, however, are funded by the federal Department of Education for a limited number of years. So what happened to the students when a programs reaches the end of their funding, or, in the case of Project AMERICA, are simply unable to provide the services they were created to give?

Often, there is no answer. When Project AMERICA decided to cut the Arabic-language portion of the program, the report provided no alternative suggestions for the students. When the program reached the end of its funding cycle a year later, the director said that it would continue to provide parental activities and cultural trips. But the staff noted that, even with government funding, they often had to cover subway fares and celebrations from their own pockets. When the funding cycle ended, all extra services­ – from the parental activities to the cultural trips –would be cut. The OREA report did not provide information on the future of the Mandarin and Cantonese bilingual courses.  

The municipal archives do not show another attempt to establish an Arabic-language program in Brooklyn until 2007. Twenty years after the launch of Project AMERICA, New York’s Department of Education would establish the Khalil Gibran International Academy. It was not a three-year program, but a permanent, dual-language high school. KGIA did not have the same issues as Project AMERICA. But establishing an Arabic-language high school post-9/11 created its own set of complications as the school’s administration, the Department of Education, and the surrounding community all struggled to find a common language. 

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