Last Wednesday, a mass of people descended on Riverside Church, on 120th Street and Claremont Avenue. Just blocks from the Columbia's gates, they carried their immigration paperwork, 50 cents (the cost of a postcard, so they could be notified of their results), and the hope of a brighter future in the United States. They were trying their chances at the lottery for the few coveted spots in the Riverside Language Program, which since 1979 has taught English to immigrants and refugees from around the world. For the last several decades, this scene has played out every six weeks without fail. Despite the changing political tide that favors immigrant education (New York is currently reviewing its policy on allowing undocumented children to enroll in public schools), recent political trends have left the Riverside Language Program short on funding and state support.
The English classes, for adults with low command of the language, are free of charge—but far from a free ride. Each session is six weeks of classes, for five days a week and six hours per day. For recent immigrants, this kind of time commitment can mean foregone wages and expensive childcare costs. Nonetheless, it is a sacrifice that hundreds of people are willing to make at every lottery session. This is in part due to the difficulties of finding free adult English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) education opportunities in New York City and in part due to Riverside Language Program's preeminent reputation. It is widely regarded as one of the best programs of its kind, and this reputation has a solid foundation.
In 2013, 87 percent of Riverside students scored well on an exam that the New York state government uses to test language competency—the New York state target for that year was 51 percent. Their post-program satisfaction scores and job- and college-placement percentages are miles ahead of other programs' as well. Teachers all hold at least master's degrees in English-language education, with a strict five-year minimum of adult language-instruction experience. There is a college counselor on hand to encourage students to break into the world of American higher education and to help them navigate its uncharted waters.
Riverside alumna Hui Fan Sun recalls supportive teachers fielding questions
about everything from grammar to immigration paperwork. "Here"—in America—"school is my home," she says. Fellow former students Sofya Ramm and Imelda Cabezas nod in vigorous assent. "They are like family!" Ramm adds. This supportive atmosphere is crucial for overcoming the unique challenges faced by adult learners of English. Ramm started learning English at 48. "It is not the best age, not the easiest age to start over," she says. Former student Artem Ayrapetyan recollects the early apprehension that teachers must assuage: "Speaking… I don't know, it was impossible."
The former students agree that the highly qualified teachers and the intensive nature of the program drive its success. "The teachers here are so special," Ram says.The program demands much from its students—a beginning student averages 270 hours of contact with teachers—but over its 35 years of existence, the program has not failed to provide them with a rock-solid base of support upon which to build their futures as American citizens.
The day-to-day operations of the Riverside Language Program has always been shaped by the political zeitgeist. When the Clinton administration began to get "tough on poverty"—that is, to institute much tougher requirements for welfare recipients, including a stipulation that they work full-time to receive benefits—Riverside changed its admissions criteria to admit students who would otherwise have to choose between welfare benefits and learning English. When the tide of refugees post-Sept. 11 was curtailed enormously as intelligence agencies became apprehensive about admitting new Americans, the program again broadened its criteria to extend its services to as many immigrants and refugees as possible. World events have also shaped, over the years, the composition of the typical classroom. In the late 1980s, Associate Director Norma Elliott recalls, as Cold War immigration restrictions were slowly lifted, the program served "many Polish people … many Romanians, some Vietnamese. Shortly after there were many Soviet Jews." Now, she says, "the majority of students are Spanish-speaking, followed closely by Russian-speaking, followed closely by French-speaking people from North Africa." One can see the imprint of global politics not only in the national origins of a classroom but also in the types of conversations that are held. "Nothing is off-limits for discussion" in lessons, Phyllis Berman, the founder and executive director, says.
But now, the politics of the outside world are affecting Riverside in markedly less benign ways. While Riverside supports its students, the question of who supports Riverside itself has been uncertain over the program's decades of operation. The drivers of its success—excellent teachers and full immersion—are two very costly inputs. Since its inception, the program has relied on a patchwork of funding sources. Though they've been helped by many private nonprofits and charity organizations—including a West Harlem Development Corporation grant last year, funded by Columbia—Riverside's greatest source of financial support has always been the Government of New York. Berman speaks ruefully of the program's early days in the 1980s and about how nervous the program staff would become when "the state government would be $50,000 late, $100,000 late, $200,000 late … "
This financial uncertainty is common to all nonprofit organizations, of course. But in recent years, the Riverside Language Program has seen especially drastic funding cuts. The economic recession limited not only the availability of public money, but also the ability of private philanthropic organizations to fill in the gaps, as well.
The program currently needs an annual operating budget of about $1.2 million, according to Berman—in the last calendar year, they were able to secure a little over $1 million from a combination of public and (increasingly) private sources.
When the conversation turns to funding, Berman says that Riverside is facing a "disturbing" trend. State funding sources have long been pushing Riverside and other intensive programs to spend less and less per student. But just this year, new funding guidelines came into effect. The de facto effect of the guidelines is that language schools, in order to be eligible for funding, must cut the amount allocated per student drastically.
Funding an immersion program becomes impossible. According to Berman and Elliott, with the low level of per-student spending, achieving what four months of Riverside classes do would end up taking at least four years.
One specific guideline is that in order to apply for more than $500,000 in funding—less than half of what Riverside has previously received—a program must have a site in four of the five boroughs. "I'm going to pause there for a moment, and explain what that means for us," Berman says soberly. Riverside's single site is a deeply ingrained part of its pedagogical philosophy. When a program has a satellite site in a neighborhood, according to Berman, suddenly it serves only one or two linguistic groups, which makes learning authentic English essentially impossible. Former students agree that having one site with students from all over the world is key. Sofya Ramm describes attending other neighborhood programs where the same participants "have been coming in for five years, and they are still at level one, level two." Imelda Cabezas agrees: "They treat it as a social hour," and often in their native language. The Washington-based Center for Applied Linguistics released a study several years ago concluding that single-site immersion programs are the most effective. Students and experts know that the single, unified site is by far the best. So why is the state government waging war on the most successful ESOL instruction model in New York City?
Elliott attributes this push toward cheaper and lower-quality instruction to political posturing on the part of representatives and to very real financial strains. She and Berman are frustrated, of course, to see their lives' work cut away by bureaucrats and politicians. "The government made a decision, I believe," Berman says, "either at the state level or at the federal level, that 'these people, these no-account, worthless people'—and I'm using language that may not be the language they use, but I think it may be the language they think—'they're not worth more than 100 or 150 hours a year of instruction, anyways. They're not going to go anyplace anyway.' And in 150 hours, almost nobody goes anyplace."
This year will mark the first time that the program cuts back the number of sessions offered. They will be down to three levels of instruction, from a past high of six or seven. The size of the teaching staff continues to contract. To watch the Riverside Language Program shrink and struggle at the whims of state politicians and the vagaries of the economy is alarming. Berman describes the program's troubles as "heartbreaking." "It's really a shame, to make the program smaller," Ramm says.