Original URL: http://www.metrowestdailynews.com/news/local_regional/fram_nativetongue11162003.htm
Students shift back to native tongue
Metro West Daily News
November 16, 2003
By Liz Mineo

FRAMINGHAM -- Second-grader Karla Martinez spent most of her first month of school in the nurse's office -- and she wasn't the only one.

During that month, most of her classmates asked to see the nurse, reporting headaches, stomachaches and feeling sick. Some would fall asleep in the classroom, others would stare at the teacher, and most would complain they couldn't understand what the teacher was saying.

It happened during the first month of the English immersion law at Brophy Elementary School.

According to the new law, Karla -- born here of Salvadoran parents -- and all limited-English students under age 10, had to take English immersion classes instead of bilingual education classes. The law, passed last year in a referendum, was to be implemented at the beginning of this school year.

During that period, Karla's teacher, Luz Elena Vallejo, spoke only English to her and 18 other students, many of whom were recent arrivals from countries in Latin America and have yet to learn English.

Karla still remembers those days.

"I was bored," said Karla, a talkative 8-year-old. "I couldn't understand anything. I couldn't do my homework. I had stomachaches every day."

"I felt I was in a different world," said Luciana Vise, 7, who arrived from Peru this past August. "It was like being on another planet."

For Karla's teacher, the experience was also stressful. She felt bad because she couldn't follow the curriculum, but also because she couldn't communicate with her students.

"They were begging me to speak Spanish," said Vallejo. "They didn't want to come to school, and when they did, they kept going to the nurse's office. They didn't even want to talk to each other. The class was quiet. They couldn't learn anything. They were suffering a lot."

After the first month, six of Vallejo's students were transferred to a "sheltered-English" class, which presents classroom instruction in English. In these classes, the student's native language is used when necessary. The "sheltered" class is a program created as a result of the new law to make the transition into a mainstream class fast and smoother.

One student who transferred has returned to Vallejo's classroom. The majority have opted to take advantage of one exception the law has for students who struggle in the immersion program: Parents can sign a yearlong waiver for their children to remain in a bilingual program, but only after their child has been placed in a 30-day English-only classroom.

That's what Karla's parents and many others did.

Since October, Karla and her classmates have been taught in a bilingual class, the way they did it before the law. In those classes, teachers use their students' native language to teach curriculum courses while they are learning English. So now, Vallejo can teach in Spanish.

On a recent morning, all of Vallejo's students seemed engaged in the classroom, smiling at each other and raising their hands to answer questions.

"They don't get sick anymore," said Vallejo. "They seem happier, and they're learning. We have to think about the children's needs first. The emotional aspect is very important for children to learn."

Parents have also noticed the change.

Claudia Hernandez, mother of 8-year-old Mirna Flores, said her daughter has more desire to go to school now that she can communicate with her teacher. And Jenny Baptista, mother of Maria Baptista, said her daughter is much happier now.

Maria Beatriz Cortez, Karla's mother, feels the same way.

"Now Karla doesn't tell me she doesn't want to go to school," Cortez said. "She knows what she's doing now, she tells me everything she does at school. Before, she wouldn't even talk about school, she didn't understand anything."

As for Karla, the memories of her English-only classes are far behind.

"I feel much better," she said. "I can do my homework now."

(Liz Mineo can be reached at 508-626-3825 or lmineo@cnc.com)