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Schools launch sink-or-swim ESL program
Medford Transcript
September 10, 2003
By Lisa Guerriero / lisa.guerriero@cnc.com

Whether you call it Ingles, Anglais or Angle, English has always been the unofficial language of the United States. It's the language used in the Declaration of Independence and on modern-day street signs.

When immigrant populations began pouring into Medford in the early 1980s the school department developed a program to help students acquire the English skills they desperately needed to succeed in this country.

That's why English Language Learner director Gwendolyn Blackburn was disappointed to learn Massachusetts voters passed Question 2 on the 2002 ballot, altering the requirements for bilingual education. Under the new Sheltered English Immersion system debuting this fall, teachers are no longer allowed to use their native language skills to enhance learning.

The goal of the legislation was to prevent students from emerging from bilingual programs speaking only their native tongues. But Blackburn says that problem was specific to bilingual programs in larger cities like Boston, while Medford's program was designed to ensure adequate immersion in English-speaking classes. The students spent two hours in ESL classes, and the rest of the day was spent in mainstream or bilingual academics.

"That may not be the case in some cities, but it was in ours," Blackburn said. "Our kids were very successful."

Many ESL students received excellent standardized test scores, some went on to college, and in 2002 the salutatorian of Medford High School was a protégé of the program.

The achievement rate, Blackburn said, was high because students were genuinely involved in American scholastic and social life.

"As far as I'm concerned, this is the segregation of kids that used to happen years ago,"  Blackburn said. "The kids are not going to be spending much time with monolingual students."

Since non-English speakers aren't equipped to learn in mainstream classes without the bilingual support they once had, the students will now spend the day in classrooms catering to their needs. Bilingual teachers will become full-time classroom instructors, teaching academics as well as English as a Foreign Language.

Charlene Barranco, a bilingual education teacher at the Columbus School, agreed that the segregation aspect of the program will likely be a detriment.

"Kids don't want to learn a language for the academics," Barranco said. "They do it because they want to talk with kids and play with kids. From there they start really enhancing the skills for performance."

Teachers trained in language acquisition are the only ones permitted to teach academics to ELL students, but many other teachers were trained this summer to facilitate learning among non-native speakers.

Making it work

Apart from the debate over the benefits and drawbacks to the program, officials and educators across the state are still trying to figure out if the new system is feasible.

Roughly 400 students who don't speak English as a first language - from as many as 50 countries - are attending Medford schools this year. At the middle school and high school levels, students of mixed ages will attend segregated English-only classes for academics and English Language Learners (ELL), the new term for ESL students. The students will attend mainstream classes for gym, music and other electives.

At the elementary schools, ELL students in kindergarten through second grade will be in shared classrooms and those in third through fifth grade will be in shared classrooms, each learning academics and English.

The prospect of teaching frameworks to a variety of age groups from a variety of countries is daunting for many ELL teachers, especially in the face of MCAS requirements.

"Can one person do this?" Barranco pondered. "I don't know, I'll tell you in June. I'm going to try."

Barranco, whose students this year speak African dialects, French, Haitian Creole and Portuguese, said the language barrier is a tough one for subject learning even among high-level English speakers. She described an "academic language" that is tough to relay without use of the native tongue: a child is asked to understand acute and obtuse angles, and the difference between a noun and an adjective.

"What took five minutes might take a week," Barranco said. "Maybe not. We've just started."

A lifelong language teacher, Barranco faces penalties and even dismissal for her job if she dabbles in other languages in the classroom. Teachers are allowed to use a non-English language only if it is for the purpose of clarifying a lesson.

Although she was dismayed when the Sheltered English Immersion program was adopted, Blackburn isn't panicked about the coming year.

"After the SPED requirements changed it took 10 years to get established," Blackburn said. "It is expected it's going to take this long to get this established. I tried to comfort my teachers by saying it will all work out. The superintendent [Roy E. Belson] said if something is wrong, we'll go back and fix it."

At a School Committee meeting this week Belson admitted the program would need some "tweaking," but said he is optimistic about the staff's ability to thrive in spite of the changes.

"There are a lot of new concepts," Belson said. "It will certainly need a lot of work to get it where we want it."

Medford High School ELL teacher Susan McDaniel, who added a beginner-English earth science class to her repertoire this year, expects the transition to be relatively easy because she has always used academic themes in her English lessons.

"I've always used content materials to teach," McDaniel. "You can feel frustrated, especially for people who have never done it and don't know what to do with it. You're given a certain group and you find ways of working with them. I have one student with almost no English at all. There's only so much you can do until you begin to have some proficiency in the language."

Bilingual education requirements are governed by Chapter 71a of the Massachusetts General Laws, enacted in 1972. Under Chapter 71a, school systems must provide Transitional Bilingual Education programs for any foreign language population constituting 20 students throughout the district. In Medford's case, a large Creole-speaking Haitian population emerged in 1983, and subsequently the schools created a program for such students. Programs were later established for Vietnamese, Chinese, Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese speakers.