The Bilingual Bicultural School
Commitment to bilingual instruction, nurturing environment
Seasoned teachers struggle with new teaching strategies
The Bilingual Bicultural Mini School has been a strong local choice in District 4 since its inception in 1973. It is a cozy school, committed to bilingual education for new immigrants and English Language Learners (ELLs) within the zone. Although BBMS does not have a formal Department of Education-approved G&T program, the school has created internal gifted and talented classes for strong students who are recommended by their teachers.Principal Andrea Hernandez started her teaching career at the school in 1983 and became principal in 2002. [In 2014 Alice Hernandez Ortiz became principal when Andrea Hernandez left to become principal of Family Life Academy Charter School III in Bronx. Hernandez Ortiz was formerly an assistant principal.]Likewise, most of the staff has worked at the school for more than five years.
Located in East Harlem, BBMS is housed on the top floor of the PS 83 building. Hallways are brimming with colorful art, and classroom doors are all decorated with work showcasing American and Latino cultural themes. Although students wear uniforms, teachers and staff make a strong effort to create an intimate and stimulating environment. Welcoming touches such as couches, padded chairs, and vases of fresh flowers flank the entrances to the administrative offices. The nurturing atmosphere even allows for every child to be remembered on their birthday with a small gift.
BBMS no longer has bridge (combined grade) classes, and they have expanded to three classes per grade level in order to keep class sizes small. Like most city schools, BBMS is using Go Math! and ReadyGEN to align instruction to the Common Core. The school integrates science and social studies into the lessons. Realizing the need to beef up science and social studies learning, the school devotes two weeks a semester to focus on this area. One drawback with the current curriculum is that ReadyGEN only comes in English, so teachers have to find comparable stories in Spanish.
Unlike traditional bilingual programs designed to move students to English-only instruction as quickly as possible, BBMS gradually shifts the balance of instruction from Spanish to English. The bilingual program includes every grade level, k - 5, every day of the week. [In 2015, BBMS received federarl grants worth $25,000 to start a formal Spanish dual language program beginning September 2015.]
On the day of our visit we saw 1st-graders learning vowels sounds, such as in cat/cake. In a 3rd-grade G&T class, students were working out of the Go Math! workbook, checking their strategies in the rounding unit. The atmosphere was very quiet as students worked independently, then went up to the board to explain the problem and have peers offer feedback. Though the students understood the method and what the right answer was, they struggled to explain the reasoning behind it. This was fairly consistent in lower level courses we saw.
Many skilled, veteran teachers are struggling to adjust to the new Common Core curriculum. Number talks for instance, are times where kids gather to perform mental math problems and decide the best strategies to solve them. They also have to be able to defend their answers. This activity allows kids to "think on their feet," says Hernandez. It appeared on the day of our visit that teachers were still becoming familiar with the strategies and the students were uncomfortable with the opportunity to be more verbal during class.
However by 4th grade, when students had to decide whether they should estimate or solve the problem first, students confidently and clearly explained their choices. The teacher listened fully before responding just enough to increase their understanding. "The goal is to go from just knowing basic facts to thinking in more complex details, says Hernandez. Learning to communicate to peers in mathematical terms is new."
In a 5th-grade bilingual class, with two teachers and an intern students were reading realistic fiction. The teacher sat with a group that needed dominant Spanish instruction, while the other practiced listening to the text and determining how to respond.
Parents are very involved. They attend regular workshops after school and support classes during their many trips and programs that celebrate biculturalism. The school invests in music teachers and maintains art to help students connect to Latino culture and prepare for the many artistic presentations throughout the year.
The cafeteria and outdoor yard are large enough to accommodate the entire school during a single lunch period. BBMS and PS 83 work well together and share access to the gymnasium and auditorium as well as to after school programs at Randalls Island. Graduates of BBMS attend a variety of middle schools in East Harlem including Young Women's Leadership School,Manhattan East School for Arts and Academics and Esperanza Preparatory Academy.
Special education: BBMS offers Integrated Co-Teaching classes and push-in services. The school does not have enough funding to provide a special education teacher for every grade, but there are Special Education Teacher Support Services (SETSS).
Admissions: Priority admission for zoned students needing bilingual instruction. (Jacquie Wayans, December 2013; updated by Mahalia Watson, January 2015)