Immersion waivers granted unevenly
FRAMINGHAM -- For days after school began in September, 9-year-old Maria Maysonet sat silently in her fifth-grade class at the Brophy School, her hands clasped on her desk and a smile frozen on her face. Maria, who moved from Puerto Rico this summer and speaks only Spanish, understood little of what was said by teacher Mark Leonard, who was required by a new state law to conduct classes entirely in English.
But last week, Maria's arm shot up in class, her fingers wiggling as she vied to answer a question -- this time in Spanish. Under a little-noticed part of the English immersion law, Maria and hundreds of other immigrant students in Massachusetts have won permission to move back into bilingual classes the law aimed to eliminate. Suddenly, Brophy teachers see eager expressions, and fewer requests to go to the nurse.
"I expect that kids won't stress out anymore," Brophy's principal, Margaret Doyle, said as three bilingual classes started up again last week. "I expect that kids are not going to turn themselves off after lunch anymore."
When voters approved ballot Question 2 last fall, they replaced bilingual education, where students learned in their native tongues while easing into English over several years, with one year of all-English courses. But the law allowed some exceptions: Students struggling in immersion can apply for a yearlong waiver to continue learning in their native language.
The state is compiling the number who have received waivers from the 50,000 students with limited-English skills. But interviews with local school officials make clear that there is a huge variation in the way districts have granted them. Some school systems have not informed all parents of the option.
Now, bilingual education advocates are eyeing legal action to enforce that part of the law, saying they fear that hundreds of students who don't understand English are sitting perplexed in classes, with their parents unaware of their rights. Some are suspicious that school officials are steering parents away from bilingual education because they don't want to reshuffle schedules, or because they oppose it politically.
"They do not treat this waiver provision as a serious legal requirement, and it's a serious part of the law," said Roger Rice, executive director of META, a Somerville group that opposed Question 2. "Where districts are simply wholesale ignoring or just saying, `We're not going to have this program,' that's litigable."
The law gives schools control over how many waivers they grant. Parents must apply for them, and principals must sign off. Children age 10 and older were eligible for waivers when school began, but the law set a different requirment for younger students: Children under 10 must spend at least 30 days in an immersion class before their parents can request a change.
In Framingham, where school officials aggressively reached out to parents to tell them waivers would be available, about 300 of the town's 1,400 children with limited-English skills remain in bilingual education. In Brockton, almost 350 students have won waivers, while 850 are remaining with immersion.
But in Marlborough, which has several hundred limited-English students, school officials did not send letters informing parents about the waiver option until this month. Lowell, which has more than 700 children in immersion, is not offering waivers to elementary students. School officials say they believe students will get enough native language support from their teachers or bilingual aides.
In Boston, where some parents learned in the spring and summer that they could apply for waivers, others remain in the dark. So far the district has granted waivers to about 470 students, while 7,000 remain in English-only classes.
The state Department of Education says it does not plan to enforce the waiver provisions closely this year because it is the first under immersion, although they expect districts to follow the law.
"We're not going to go after districts for being out of compliance right now," said spokeswoman Heidi B. Perlman, adding that schools need time to figure out how to comply with the demands of Question 2.
The goal of the new law was to help immigrant students learn English faster by immersing them in it. Critics of bilingual education complained that many students languished for years in bilingual classes, mastering neither English nor other subjects.
Indeed, some local school leaders say they have granted few waivers because they want to give immersion a shot, and their students' parents do as well. In Chelsea, where more than 600 students are in English immersion, officials say not one parent has requested a waiver.
"I think they understand the need for their children to know and learn English as quickly and as well as possible," said Irene Cornish, Chelsea's superintendent.
Still, some parents newly arrived to the United States, who speak little English themselves, say they have received little help to navigate the rules.
Two months into her life in Boston, fourth grade is a tearful blur for 9-year-old Patricia Mejia, who came from the Dominican Republic. She speaks only Spanish but is in an all-English class at the Agassiz Elementary School.
Her mother, Maria Rosa Molina, could apply for a waiver to switch Patricia to bilingual classes. But Molina said no one has told her of the option or explained how to do it. Since school started, she said, Patricia has been miserable: She can do little of her homework, and her Spanish-speaking mother cannot help.
"She's really smart. She's not a dumb student. But she's not going to learn in that kind of situation," Molina said through a translator in a recent interview.
Boston school officials said they proceeded slowly in approving waivers because they did not want to be perceived as promoting one method of instruction over another. "That's been one reason why it's been slower than what some people want, but it's us being sure that if the kid gets services, it's for the right reason," said Chris Coxon, deputy superintendent for teaching and learning.
In Framingham, by contrast, where school administrators vocally opposed Question 2, teachers met with the families of all 1,400 limited-English students to discuss their options. Susan McGilvray-Rivet, director of Framingham's bilingual programs, said the district wanted to avoid last-minute scrambles when school started. But officials' belief in the value of bilingual education was another reason, she said.
"We don't believe all students are the same," McGilvray-Rivet said. "And we don't believe one program is the solution for all students."
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.
English immersion waivers
1. The student must spend at least 30 days in an English immersion class before their parents can apply for a waiver.
2. School officials must write a statement of at least 250 words documenting
why the student needs bilingual classes. (The statement becomes part of the
student's permanent school record.)
3. The school principal and the district superintendent must both agree to
4. The student's parents must visit the school and be informed, in a language
they understand, of their child's educational options.
2. The student's parents must visit the school and be informed, in a
language they understand, of their child's educational options.