Original URL: http://www.southcoasttoday.com/daily/12-03/12-29-03/a01sr120.htm

Progress in immersion, but no miracles
December 29, 2003
By JOAO FERREIRA, Standard-Times staff writer

Dartmouth English-as-a-second-language teacher Isilda Halstead detected more than a passing resemblance when she first reviewed the requirements for the new, state-mandated, structured immersion program for students who speak limited English.

The new immersion program, she said, closely resembles the ESL program that Dartmouth schools have used for more than two decades. Textbooks are to be English-only, the classroom is to be taught mostly in English, and the ultimate goal is to get students into regular classrooms as soon as possible.

"For us, this is what we had, we had ESL," she said.

But Ms. Halstead, who has been teaching immersion to small groups of elementary, middle and high school students in Dartmouth since September, said another thing became apparent.

"There's no way, no way" students will become fluent in English after one year, she said, as promoters of immersion have intended.

"I say, minimum, minimum, three years," she said. "Can we shove it into their heads faster? No."

Ms. Halstead and other area school officials say that with three months of immersion to look at, it has become increasingly evident that students who speak little English will be unable to become proficient in the language after one year.

State education officials said they want to wait until tests are over next spring to draw conclusions. Immersion supporters say most students eventually -- although maybe not this year -- will become fluent in English in just a year.

"It is our hope, our expectation, that a lot of these kids will make this progress in a year," said Rosalie Pedalino Porter, chairwoman of English for the Children of Massachusetts. Her group, financed by Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz, sponsored Question 2, the ballot initiative that ultimately ended the state's 30-year bilingual education program in November 2002.

Under bilingual education, students took English classes while learning other subjects, such as history and math, in their native language. Last year, 61 percent of the voters approved Question 2 in a state election, replacing bilingual education with English immersion.

During the Question 2 campaign, the Unz group contended that bilingual education had failed generations of students, and that one year of rapid English immersion would prove cheaper, faster and more effective overall.

"We did not take this one year out of thin air; it is an expectation in other countries," Dr. Pedalino said, adding that Australia and Scandinavian countries have successfully run one-year, structured immersion programs for a long time. "Certainly, we are smart in Massachusetts to meet the challenge as others have done."

Dr. Porter said students, teachers and parents have to get used to the notion of one-year immersion. She said that might take some time, but it will happen.

"We are going to see improvement, I have no doubt about that," said Dr. Porter, a former Spanish bilingual teacher in the Springfield area. "The surprise is going to be right in the classroom."

Educators are unconvinced.

"That's not possible for 99.9 percent of the children," said Manuel Gomes, who runs the immersion program in the New Bedford schools. "That is absurd, completely unrealistic. In one year, you don't acquire a new language."

Educators say they hope state tests will prove their point by July.

Year deadline flexible

While immersion legislation stipulates that children should learn English "preferably" in one year, it leaves open the door for students to stay in the program longer. Under the law, school officials and parents will review each student's situation. If the parent believes that the student needs more help, the student can participate in immersion for another year.

"The state has taken care of that with that wonderful word called waiver," Ms. Halstead said.

"The real key phrase here is when (students) can do ordinary class work in English," Mr. Gomes said. "This theoretical one year is unrealistic. You can't shove a language down your head with a funnel."

Last year, the DOE assessed all those learning English and is developing language acquisition benchmarks for those students. In the spring, the DOE intends to evaluate students' speaking and listening skills with tests. Such reading and writing measurements include the Language and Assessment Scales test; the Massachusetts English Language Assessment-Oral tests; and the Massachusetts English Proficiency Assessment tests. Additionally, students will take the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests, DOE spokeswoman Kim Beck said.

"We'll have some time to look at whether students are improving," she said, adding that it is still too early to say whether immersion is working. "I think it's going to be a matter of time. I think at this point, it's a little early to say that."

starting over

Structured immersion is being financed through the federal No Child Left Behind program. Under structured immersion, school systems have had to overhaul the way they teach students who speak limited English. The DOE has helped 38 districts implement immersion, facilitating teacher training, developing benchmarks and acquiring materials. The DOE has hired the School for International Training, a Vermont consultant with global experience, to help implement immersion.
New Bedford schools have spent $40,000 in new instruction materials. All old materials, which were bilingual, were discarded. Most limited-English students in the city Portuguese or Spanish. Students in the lower grades now have one block of English immersion a day, and high school students have two. Students learn English in a mixed environment, depending on their skills.

During the summer, schools tested the English proficiency of all their former bilingual teachers, as required by the immersion law. All New Bedford teachers were deemed proficient after an interdisciplinary series of reviews.

The state sponsored training for teachers in the summer and fall. Across the state, several teachers did not meet proficiency requirements and are undergoing further training or are being put on sabbatical.

New Bedford's is a large district with a diverse student population, including about 400 limited-English students. Dartmouth's is a smaller, suburban district with about 30 students who speak limited English.

Although New Bedford put on a major effort to implement structured immersion, Dartmouth has had a much smoother transition.

"We really have a nice situation, because we do have small numbers. We get a chance to really advocate" for students, Ms. Halstead said.

Nevertheless, in New Bedford, officials say their commitment to students who speak limited English is as strong as anywhere else.

"What (New Bedford Superintendent Michael E. Longo) said to me is, 'We will not leave any child behind,'" Mr. Gomes said.
Long-term optimism

Although school officials were skeptical initially, a few months after immersion has been implemented, they are saying they expect the program to be successful. However, they insist that students will be not be able to become fluent in English in just one year. They said they would like to see more native-language assistance for students who have had no prior exposure to English.

"Everyone is getting used to this," Mr. Gomes said. "I think it's going to work out well."

Mr. Gomes and Ms. Halstead said they are especially thrilled about common benchmarks and measurement systems for all schools, which will lead to greater accountability.

"Everyone will be on the same page; that's what I'm excited about," Ms. Halstead said.

"The new approach has put us in the spotlight, and that's good," Mr. Gomes said. "We have to show progress, and that's new, that's good.

"By the end of the year, you are going to see big improvement. I feel very good about it," he said.

Dr. Porter said educators' efforts have been strong and in good faith. "We cannot change the system overnight; I am sure, though, we are heading in the right direction."

This story appeared on Page A1 of The Standard-Times on December 29, 2003.