A Tale of Two Boroughs: Russian in Harlem and Brooklyn

An event at Columbia University was the culminating point for the Russian Dual-Language Program initiative, led by mothers Julia Stoyanovich and Olga Ilyashenko. The meeting brought together an impressive array of supporters, including Tim Frye, a Russian-speaking American professor of East European studies; Maria Kot, a Russian native who helped save and build upon Russian dual-language programs in Brooklyn; and Tatyana Kleyn, professor of bilingual education at the City College of New York, who came to the United States as a young Russian-speaking child from Latvia and had to re-learn Russian as an adult. The gathering also included important state and city officials such as Luis Reyes of the New York State Board of Regents and Milady Baez, Deputy Chancellor for the New York City Department of Education, as well as school principals, teachers, representatives from cultural organizations, press, and parents. This gathering was but a small representation of a tremendous multi-year effort to create a Russian dual-language program in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Through many ups and downs, successive groups of parents tried for years to convince school authorities that a Russian dual-language program was needed in their part of the city. In the face of continued challenges, this call for action unified a very diverse set of individuals and expectations.

A Globally-Minded Linguistic Community

Not all the individuals in the room came from Russia. In fact, only a few did. Many lived in New York City but grew up in Russian-speaking homes. Others came from former republics of the Soviet Union or other European countries. When asked what other languages were spoken at home, families who advocated for the Russian dual-language initiative responded with Italian, Greek, Ukrainian, Tatar, Armenian, Spanish, French, German, Hebrew, Hungarian, Serbian, and Urdu, in addition to Russian and English. The assembled group represented 125 families with 160 children born between 2011 and 2016, or approximately thirty to forty children per birth year, who would soon enter pre-Kindergarten or Kindergarten. Many parents were native or heritage Russian speakers, although some spoke limited or no Russian at all. According to the organizers’ data, about half of the children whose parents were interested spoke Russian at home; a quarter spoke English and Russian equally; and another quarter did not speak Russian, including English monolingual students. The group represented by this initiative was, as the mothers beautifully put it, as diverse as the city they inhabited: multilingual, multicultural, and eager to access new opportunities for their children.

Testimonies gathered from the families involved speak to the importance of a Russian dual-language program in their personal and family lives. A few parents struggled to learn Russian as a second language later in life and did not want their children to have to suffer as they had. Some children came from families with one Russian-speaking and one English-speaking parent, which made communicating in Russian at home an often challenging task. One family even had a child who was already trilingual in English, Russian, and Chinese, and wanted to enroll their son in a dual-language program so that he could master literacy in two out of his three spoken languages.

Parents highlighted the cultural benefits that both Russian-speaking children and non-Russian-speaking children would derive from the program as they discover the “treasures” of Russian culture. Founder Julia Stoyanovich’s family noted that they spoke entirely in Russian at home because she and her husband wanted their son to be able to not only understand but also tell jokes and laugh in their native language. They also wanted their child to be able to communicate at ease with his grandparents who lived in Queens, Moscow, and Belgrade, and who spoke limited English. Many families self-identified as global Russians, a term that indicates a combination of Russian language and culture, a well-stamped passport, and a Western education and way of life. These parents believed that a Russian dual-language program would be invaluable to them as a means of preserving their identity, in passing on their native language and culture to their children.

The message of this diverse group was deep yet simple: E Pluribus Unum. Their overwhelming hope was to combine their varied backgrounds and interests to create a thriving dual-language program. On the Upper West Side, where the initiative is based, it is not uncommon to hear Russian spoken on the streets. In fact, New York City has the largest population of Russian speakers in the United States. According to a recent census, the city had over 200,000 Russian speakers, making Russian the fourth most commonly spoken language in New York City after English, Spanish, and Chinese. Approximately 3,400 Russian-speaking children in New York are identified as English Language Learners and qualify for bilingual education services. Many more students who come from Russian-speaking homes may enter school speaking some English, but need to become proficient in English reading, writing, and comprehension.

Additionally, children of all language backgrounds, including English monolinguals, could benefit from a Russian dual-language program because of the importance of Russian on a global level, as well as the many hidden cultural, professional, and personal avenues it unlocks for fluent speakers. The founders spoke at length about their desire to share their love for Russian language and culture with others in the New York City community. They believed that the Russian program would be a gift to their children, but also to the greater community, and they were prepared to go to great lengths to make their dream a reality.

Fighting to the Top

Before we return to our two mothers in Manhattan, it is important to tell the original story of Russian dual-language programs in New York, a story that begins in Brooklyn. There, Maria Kot, a Russian-speaking parent, had become a key advocate for Russian bilingual education for her daughter and hundreds of other bilingual students at P.S. 200 and I.S. 228. Maria organized community events and meetings, developed plans of action, and liaised with many advocacy groups, community boards, Russian families, and government agencies. She is now the parent representative at the New York State Association for Bilingual Education, where she is able to voice the interests of parents from diverse linguistic communities.

Maria’s first interaction with Russian dual-language programs was when she enrolled her daughter at the elementary school level at P.S. 200. Although the program was already in existence, just a few years into Maria’s daughter’s education it was on the verge of being cut when a new principal took over and other minority groups in the school felt that they and their children were not a part of it. Maria explains how difficult it was to convince parents and administrators of the need for such a program to continue:

At that time, the situation was different and the idea of dual-language was not very welcomed. We had to fight. We had to start a fight with the Department of Education for our kids to have dual-language education. If that can be avoided, it should be avoided because it is stressful for everyone and you shouldn’t have to do it.

Following an exhausting legal battle with the Department of Education, Maria and the Russian dual-language program parents eventually won the right to keep the dual-language program for her daughter and the rest of the dual-language class.

Their argument centered on the past precedent of Lau v. Nichols, further explored in Chapter Thirteen, and the right of English Language Learners to have access to dual-language education. With proven documentation of the number of English Language Learner students, Maria was able to save the Russian bilingual programs in Brooklyn. Over time, the program continued to grow. A second Russian dual-language program opened at the middle school level, at I.S. 228, to accommodate the rising bilingual classes. This program was much easier to implement, thanks to an exceptionally supportive principal, as Maria describes:

That was much easier, and peaceful, and more successful. I found a principal who was interested in improving his school. I reached out to him and explained the opportunity that dual-language could offer his school. It took a few visits before he actually understood the idea of bilingual education. But he then became an amazing supporter of dual-language. Since then, he opened a Russian dual-language and a Chinese dual-language program. The next year, he opened a Spanish dual-language program and then a Hebrew dual-language program. Now, we have the huge support and advocacy of the principal to continue.

Incredibly, Maria’s efforts to expand Russian bilingual programs afforded other linguistic communities the opportunity to implement their own programs. Moreover, P.S. 200 was designated a Model Dual-language School by former New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña for the 2015-2016 school year. These successes demonstrate the power of parent involvement, as each initiative has the potential to change the educational landscape of a community.

Make Your Dream a Reality

Meanwhile, while Russian programs achieved significant success in Brooklyn, the Manhattan initiative continued to stall. All were well aware that previous attempts to create a Russian bilingual program in Manhattan had failed. But for Olga and Julia, this was not seen as a reason to give up. Instead, they rallied interest around their enthusiastic call to action. Julia describes their vision as follows:

This is our dream. Our dream is very close to home. It is to establish a Russian dual-language program at a public elementary school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. We want this to be a high-quality bilingual program. This program should help Russian-speaking English Language Learner children to learn English in a constructive, stress-free, and pleasant environment. It should also help children who do not speak Russian to learn the language and to enjoy and appreciate it together with us and with the rest of the Russian-speaking community and world. We want this program specifically to be at a public elementary school. We feel that the public school system is going to provide for us the benefits that New York City gives—the multiculturalism, the diversity, the integration, and the beauty of the city that we are happy to call our home.

In addition to their own Russian-speaking community, our mothers developed a strategy to attract non-Russian speakers to their program based on three key things: bearded men, rocket ships, and the seal of biliteracy. Through her laughter, Julia described how the Russian language opens the door to Russia’s rich cultural traditions, including the likes of bearded men such as Leo Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, and Chekhov. The rocket ship, an ode to Sputnik, focused on career opportunities and job growth in the political, technological, and scientific fields in the Russian-speaking world. And finally, in a few select states including New York, the seal of biliteracy is awarded to high school graduates who have attained a high level of proficiency in one or more languages in addition to English, thereby lending legitimacy to dual-language programs across the country.

Many of the ingredients necessary to create a successful dual-language program on the Upper West Side were already present the night of the Russian Dual-language Program presentation. The group needed motivated parents and many of them were in the audience. They needed resources, both from the New York City Department of Education and from outside partnerships and organizations, many of which had representatives in attendance and among the presenters. They needed to identify highly-qualified teachers, and could do so by working in collaboration with the schools that they had already started to contact. The final ingredient was the students, guaranteed by the enthusiastic and committed parents in the audience. However, administrators in the audience and on the panel reminded the new leaders of the Russian dual-language initiative of the importance respecting and integrating into an already established school community. They urged the group to work with parents at schools who may feel threatened by change and new offerings.

A hallmark of the Russian initiative, these moms expressed their resounding commitment to avoiding the creation of an isolated bubble within the school for the Russian language students. They were determined to construct a program to benefit the entire school community. As the group well understood, when a dual-language program is built upon respect, appreciation, and cooperation, the school becomes the foundation upon which a community can prosper.

The two sets of Russian dual-language initiatives, one in Brooklyn and the other in Manhattan, provide contrasting tales yet yield similar advice. In Brooklyn, what stemmed from a tough legal battle grew into a flourishing dual-language haven that embraces and strengthens its diverse community to this day. In Manhattan, the multi-year uphill battle to secure a school location in prime real estate has proven too daunting and difficult to establish a bilingual program for the numerous eager Russian families. At the time of this writing, the Russian dual-language initiative in Manhattan was in conversation with a school in Harlem that seemed open to its dual-language program proposal. Although the Brooklyn and Manhattan projects followed different paths, both champion the diversity of their communities. They seek to promote the various cultures encapsulated in their linguistic community, while sharing and celebrating their traditions with the greater public. In the end, whether their children are telling jokes, dancing in ballets, or reading Tolstoy, the Russian dual-language families in New York are committed to preserving their unique cultural heritages in their multicultural city, and to making their dreams come true.

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