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Students 'immersed' in English
The Republican

By NATALIA E. ARBULÚ Staff writer

SPRINGFIELD - In a second-grade classroom at German Gerena Elementary School, Wilbert O. Oyola and his peers sat at teacher Theresa A. Lopardo's feet and listened to her reading of "A Fine, Fine School."

Lopardo, a teacher of English as a Second Language, stopped after each page to have children describe in English what they saw in the pictures and to predict what would happen next.

The story of a principal who extends the school year to include weekends, holidays and the summer was the perfect way to engage English language learners in conversation on the first day of school.

Wilbert, 7, was a bilingual student last year as a first-grader and is now one of 14 second-graders at Gerena making the transition to a "sheltered English
immersion" program.

He was one of the more vocal students of the group and gave Lopardo his answers in perfect English.

When Lopardo asked the group why the story's students may not like going to school every day, Wilbert raised his hand and said, "They don't want to go to school every day because they want a free day."

Districts across the commonwealth are aligning their programs to comply with a state law requiring non-English-speaking children to be in sheltered immersion classes.

The children are taught in English with support in their native language with the expectation they will move to regular classes after a year.

Almost 70 percent of voters approved the "English immersion" ballot question last November.

Springfield schools began the change from bilingual programs to the sheltered immersion model last year, according to Edgardo L. Reyes, district director of the English Language Learning Program.

"This will not be 100 percent new to any of our schools," Reyes said.

While some schools will need to eliminate their native language arts component to teach students solely in English, the district as a whole is in a favorable position.

"We're ahead of the ball game. I think it is safe to say we are one of the few in the state with a plan to teach limited English speakers which is in compliance with state and federal regulations and district goals," Reyes said.

English language learners of Hispanic, Vietnamese, and Russian descent represent 11 percent of the district's 27,000 students, Reyes said.

Gerena school has become a model for the sheltered immersion program, Reyes said.

The school started the practice two years ago in the third grade and extended it last year to fourth- and fifth-graders, according to assistant principal Yolanda Gomez.

Yesterday was the first day the younger students at Gerena moved from instruction in both English and Spanish to sheltered immersion, Gomez said.

"What is happening at Gerena is what we want to see happen across the board where fully bilingual teachers are teaching sheltered immersion with established support," Reyes said.

Based on last year's success of older English language learners, principal Peter A. Levanos was confident younger students would do well in sheltered immersion classes.

In Holyoke, English immersion did not replace the transitional bilingual education program because education of English language learners is controlled by a "Lau plan," which is part of the U.S. District Court-approved desegregation plan for Holyoke Public Schools.

Holyoke expects an enrollment of 7,000 students.

Negotiations with the plaintiffs in the case to release the district from parts of the desegregation and Lau plans started this summer, but no agreement has been reached.

Although the Lau plan mandates transitional bilingual education, there is room for change within its parameters, and that is being done, Superintendent Eduardo B. Carballo said.

"This year there is going to be a focus on English language learners schoolwide and how everyone can help with them," Carballo said.

For example, students who are ready could spend part of their day in English classrooms, Carballo said. There will also be a push to make sure students who are ready receive most of their instruction in English and that they are moved into all-English classrooms when appropriate, he said.

"We need to be constantly assessing children and moving them at their pace," Carballo said.

The district, which has 1,400 English language learners, has pilot English immersion programs at Kelly and Sullivan Schools.

Staff writer Nancy Gonter contributed to this report.