At this school, it's not lost in translation
The Boston Globe 
By Mary Prince, Globe Correspondent

"Can you believe it's only two days to show time?" asks Marcia Pertuz nervously.

I'm at the Amigos School in Cambridge, and Pertuz's students, like children everywhere, are bouncing off the furniture with excitement as they stare down that eternal rite of passage: the class play. And I, the rehearsal audience of one, get to scrunch myself into a tiny plastic chair, watching as a dozen or so of Pertuz's Spanish-speaking third-graders strut their stuff in a musical rendition of "Jack and the Beanstalk" in English. The students who make up the beanstalk, identified by the large green paper leaves pinned to their backs, swirl in restless perpetual motion. But when Pertuz hits the play button on the boom box, the leaves coalesce into a chorus line of chlorophyll, belting out, "This is the story of a boy named Jack" (clap).

Yes, the show will go on. Parents' fervent prayers will be answered. As in foxholes, there are no atheists at the class play.

But as Pertuz's students hit the boards, they face an even stiffer challenge than many youngsters do. Some of the students -- who hail from the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Mexico, and Colombia -- have recently arrived from their native countries, and English is still very much a foreign language. What's more, all the children have chosen their own parts, with some surprising results. A boy who has moved to Cambridge from Puerto Rico is concealing one of his luminous dark eyes behind a rakish patch to play the evil giant, a potentially career-ending move even for a seasoned class play veteran. Of the three Jacks -- several children play the main parts so that nobody will be left out -- one is a girl. No glass ceilings on this beanstalk. Why shouldn't Jack be a Jill?

Equally impressive, next month the English-speakers in class will be performing their lines in Spanish. "Being in plays really makes kids use their language -- it pushes them," says Pertuz, who after 15 years of teaching bilingual ed is still frequently amazed at what her students can do.

As I watch, I wish that the people who voted in favor of Question 2 slightly more than a year ago could be sitting here with me now. The ballot initiative, passed by more than two-thirds of the state's voters, sought to replace multiyear bilingual education with yearlong English immersion. The measure's proponents claimed that teaching students in their native languages merely puts off the inevitable -- they need to get with it in English, and now. Last summer the Legislature amended (some say gutted) the initiative to give schools more discretion in dealing with the issue, and the Amigos School is not on the chopping block.

The school offers a different path: so-called two-way language immersion. Its 302 students in kindergarten through eighth grade split their time between English and Spanish. That formula morphs from teaching in each language for half a week in kindergarten, to alternating languages weekly in the early grades, to offering specific classes in both languages in middle school. Some 60 to 65 percent of the students speak Spanish at home; the rest are English speakers whose families want them to learn a second language from an early age -- the only way, experts say, of becoming totally fluent. After age 10, it gets tougher.

Perhaps most important, the school aims to get Spanish speakers up to speed in English as quickly as possible without forcing them to slough off their native language like last year's moldy backpack; they're encouraged to view it as a precious legacy to be nurtured. And English speakers learn that they indeed speak a wonderful language -- but not the only language on the planet. It's a big wide world out there.

From where I'm sitting, pretzeled in my little chair and rapidly losing circulation, it's a philosophy that makes sense. For years I had watched the Amigos in action, thanks to my friend Jose, whom I had met through an Amnesty International group that was helping him and his dad seek political asylum here from their native Guatemala. When I met Jose, he was 9 and had been in the Amigos program for only six months, yet he was nearly fluent in unaccented English, including colloquial kidspeak. Since his classes were taught one week in English, the next in Spanish, he didn't lose those first months in this country floating in linguistic limbo. And that support was crucial. "You have to have a commitment to the belief that minority children can do well," says Amigos principal Marla Perez-Selles. "That's the critical element to closing the achievement gap."

Jose is now a junior in college, and the 18-year-old Amigos program -- one of the first of a dozen such offerings in the state -- is only a proud line on his resume. (The program has since become its own school and last summer took up residence in the King School on Putnam Avenue.) But the recent political debate got me wondering: Why aren't more schools opting for two-way immersion?

"I'm hoping after the referendum vote, more districts will be interested in looking into it," says Mary Cazabon, director of bilingual education for the Cambridge schools. Shifting resources to the two-way model, she says, requires "thoughtful planning time -- you can't put a program together overnight." One drawback: Smaller school districts may not have enough English-speakers who want to learn another language to make the program truly two-way. "But for the bigger districts, it's the way to go," she says.

Meanwhile, two days after my first visit, the achievement gap that the Amigos third-graders are worrying about is the one in their memories: Will I forget my lines? "In first grade, I couldn't remember anything," confides Jack's mom, matronly at age 8 in a crisp white apron and Mother Hubbard cap. "That won't happen this time," Pertuz assures her briskly. Pertuz and I exchange glances.

Finally, the hour arrives and the children sidle into the auditorium, backs to the wall to maintain the surprise element of their capelike leaves. Can't let 'em know you're really a beanstalk, can you? The music swells, with a little help from Cambridge drama instructor William Endslow, and -- it's show time. The terror of facing your first audience works its primordial magic, and despite a few glitches (like the mislaying of Jack's cow), the kids all rise to the occasion. With minor prompting, they know their lines and belt out their tunes, the beanstalk unfolds with a Rockettes-like precision, the diminutive giant gets spectacularly creamed, and the Goose That Lays the Golden Egg accompanies his song with a little Latin swivel to the hips. Move over, Ricky Martin.

As the students conclude with a chorus of "We're going to find our future as we play/We're going to keep on climbing every day," I think, Yep, I know you will. You will be giants -- with a little help from your Amigos.

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