Original URL: http://www.lowellsun.com/Stories/0,1413,105%257E4761%257E1357945,00.html

City weighs future of bilingual education
By SUSAN McMAHON, Lowell Sun Staff
Tuesday, April 29, 2003 - 11:32:24 AM EST

LOWELL Is a year enough time to learn a new language?
What about the psychological aspect of mainstreaming kids too soon?

Will the quality in the classrooms remain the same?

The Lowell schools are in the process of designing a whole new way of instructing students who do not speak English, and city parents and educators have questions.

The Citywide Parent Council's meeting last night focused on the topic of bilingual education where it has been, where it's going, and how education officials hope to get there.

Most of the discussion focused around the Question 2 ballot initiative, which virtually eliminated native-language instruction in Massachusetts, and a federal court decree under which Lowell operates its bilingual-education system.

School districts are expected to begin implementing the Question 2 changes by September. For Lowell, it's a questioning of balancing state and
federal requirements while trying to find the best way to teach English language learners.

"It's a big change in a very short time for school districts," said Jean Franco, interim assistant superintendent for student support services.

Under Question 2, which was passed by voters in November, students will have one year of sheltered English immersion before being transferred into a mainstream classroom. With the consent of parents, children can stay in immersion classes for a maximum of two years.

The federal consent decree, implemented after a court case involving Lowell schools, requires support for students new to the country in their native

To reconcile the two positions, school officials are planning to transition students into mainstream classes while offering them native-language
support for points of clarification. If a student does not understand a certain point being made in English, a teacher can clarify in the student's native

"In Lowell, the mix is going to be difficult because we have to comply with native support, especially for newcomers," Franco said.

But while mainstreaming students and teaching them English quickly, school leaders also need to keep in mind the importance of helping children
acclimate to a new culture and a new country, while retaining their heritage, officials said.

"That transition period can be very hard," said Lowell High senior Valter DeSouza, Jr. "There's definitely a culture clash, and there's also a fear."

"It's very important to get a sense of self within a new culture," said Elaine Theriault, head of Lowell High School's bilingual-education department.
"It's an opportunity for this organization and school district to recognize that, validate that and move forward."

Budget constraints are also an issue, as the school district is drastically changing its bilingual-education program at a time when cuts to the School
Department's budget are predicted to be deep.

And some parents expressed concern that a large number of students without a comprehensive grasp of English would both bring down the
quality of instruction in mainstream classrooms and be more likely to be retained or referred for special education.

"I understand we've got to follow the law, but it seems to me many of our at-risk students are English language learners," said Citywide Parent
Council President Jackie Doherty. "And if we're pushing them, are we going to lose more of them?"

Panelists said the key to avoiding such cases is to focus on making connections between the student and services that could help him, such as
a new dropout prevention program at Lowell High School.

And school officials said they would keep an eye on the effectiveness of the new bilingual structure.

"We have an incredible challenge," Franco said. "We have to keep watch."

Susan McMahon's e-mail address is smcmahon@lowellsun.com .