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School begins, immersed in English                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Bilingual education ends under terms of 2002 vote                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Boston Globe                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        8/27/2003

By Anand Vaishnav,                                                                                                                                    

LOWELL -- The new world of first grade was frightening enough for 6-year-old Jeudry Sanchez, a recent arrival from Puerto Rico who spent his first hour at the Joseph A. McAvinnue School yesterday sobbing and asking for his dad.

But Jeudry may have had another reason to cry: He speaks only Spanish, and nearly all he heard from teacher Maribel Gervais was English -- the result of a new state law that requires immigrant students to be taught in English instead of their native tongues.

"Are you happy to be here? You'll be happy soon," Gervais said to Jeudry, who did not respond through his sniffles.

After two years of heated rhetoric, legal battles, and legislative maneuvers, school districts across Massachusetts this fall are launching a controversial new way of teaching children who do not speak English, ushering in a new era for school districts such as Lowell with large immigrant populations.

The English immersion law, which calls for students with limited English skills to spend a year learning almost entirely in English before moving to mainstream classrooms, replaced bilingual education after 68 percent of voters approved the switch last November. As many as 50,000 of the Bay State's 993,000 public school students have a limited ability to speak English and most could end up in English-only classrooms this fall.

Most of the students live in large urban districts such as Boston, Chelsea, Holyoke, and Springfield, which open their doors next week. In Lowell, where nearly one in five students have limited English skills, the new approach was launched the moment children entered their classrooms yesterday morning.

Previously, Lowell students would have learned in their native languages, ranging from Spanish to Khmer, and slowly made a transition to all-English classes over several years.

"I don't know how it's going to pan out," said McAvinnue fourth-grade teacher Sue Carmona, adding that she resisted the urge to speak Spanish to her students, most of whom had a working grasp of English. "I think it's going to be a struggle for these kids. Without the use of their native language, they don't have a base to build on."

Others, such as first-grade teacher Elizabeth Townsend, said younger students can easily soak up the language around them and pick up a lot from their classmates. "I'm looking forward to it," Townsend said. "As the children go on, reading gets easier."

Yesterday morning, however, Jeudry Sanchez was clearly having a tough time. Dressed in a powder-blue shirt and khaki cargo pants, the boy held Gervais's hand and sat beside her as she led her class of 16 in opening-day lessons of writing names, coloring self-portraits, and counting. From time to time, he put his head down on his arm and cried. His teacher said later that she suspected the combination of first-day jitters and an unfamiliar language was to blame.

Gervais, a former bilingual-education teacher who was born in Puerto Rico, spoke a few comforting words of Spanish to Jeudry to help him get settled -- a strategy allowed under the law. Teachers are permitted to speak a minimal amount of a student's native language when necessary.

Still, Gervais was obligated to continue lessons in English. So she paired Jeudry with a Spanish-speaking classmate, Jose Matos, whose English was stronger and who could help Jeudry with basic directions. Soon Jeudry's tears had dried, and he and Jose were comparing sneakers. Gervais had at least three other children in her class who speak little English, and with a little help, they did their work yesterday.

But Gervais, 36, who recently earned a master's degree in English-as-a-second-language education, said the more important test for English immersion will come when she begins the crucial lessons of first grade.

"It's just the first day," Gervais said. "Once I get into reading and writing, that's when I'll find out" whether immersion works.

While some children and their parents were wary of the changes, Jai Patel said he welcomed the opportunity for his daughter, Medha Bhagat, to learn primarily in English. Patel and his wife spoke their native Gujarati to Medha until last year, when she started kindergarten. She was in Gervais's class yesterday and seemed to speak English with ease. "I want her to speak Gujarati," Patel said. "But I don't want her to fall behind other kids."

In Massachusetts, the immersion ballot question was partially financed by Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley software entrepreneur who successfully bankrolled similar initiatives in California and Arizona.

Opponents of the measure in the Bay State -- the first in the nation to introduce a bilingual-education law in 1971 -- argue that expecting students to learn English in one year is unrealistic. They cite research showing that students learn their other subjects better once they have received a firm foundation in the subjects in their native tongue, which was a goal of bilingual education.

But Unz and his backers said that many students languished in bilingual education for years, never truly learning English and falling behind in other subjects, and his initiative cruised to victory last fall with support from then-gubernatorial candidate Mitt Romney.

Now, as most districts are preparing to welcome students back to class after Labor Day, local school officials are putting the finishing touches on their immersion plans. Teachers and administrators from 35 districts yesterday wrapped up a two-day conference in Marlborough, sponsored by the state Department of Education, on the best ways to teach English immersion. The state plans to offer 10 more such conferences over the next two years.

In Lowell, teachers of immersion classes received four days of training before school began. The district is implementing the changes under a 1987 federal consent decree that requires some native-language help for students. "We're not going to have in place on Day One everything we would like to have in place to meet all of our youngsters' needs," said Brooks Baehr, Lowell's superintendent of schools. "But we're certainly going to use [the first day] and the next couple of days to really assess what the needs are."

Students statewide who are 10 or older, or are in special education, can seek waivers to remain in traditional bilingual-education classes. Lowell officials said they do not yet know how many students will seek waivers because they have not yet started the application process.

About half of McAvinnue's 500 students are classified as having a limited ability to speak English. Instead of being separated by language group -- as they were in bilingual education -- students of different ethnic backgrounds were mixed in immersion classes.

Some with less English-speaking ability can get help from a paraprofessional who speaks their language, principal Elizabeth Conroy said. But the Spanish signs, books, and posters from the earlier bilingual education era have been packed away in closets.

"It may be a little bit difficult," Conroy said. "But you have to go with the belief that you can do it."

Megan Tench of the Globe staff contributed to this report.