Immersion vote reflects support by immigrants
Boston Globe, 11/17/2002

By Kimberly Atkins, Globe Staff Correspondent

At first glance, it may seem that voters' sound rejection of bilingual education in Quincy, which has the
state's largest number of residents who primarily speak an Asian language, was meant to send a
message to the immigrant population.

But a deeper look into the immigrant community shows the premium they place on learning English.

''We are here. This is our home. This is our country,'' said Jonathan Yip, administrator of constituent
services in Quincy City Hall's Office of Equal Opportunity. He said many Asian Americans in the city told
him they supported Question 2, which replaces bilingual programs with English immersion. ''It is
important for the second generation to master the language.''

In Quincy, where Census figures indicate more than 14 percent of the population primarily speaks an
Asian language at home, voters favored Question 2 by more than a 2-to-1 ratio, with a final tally of
20,398 to 8,171.

Yip and others say the vote confirms what Quincy's Asians - especially those of school age - have
already been doing: learning English in addition to their native languages. Yip, who favors English
immersion, said that most Asian residents don't resist efforts for their children to learn English as quickly
as they can.

''On the contrary, people are complaining that their kids don't speak Chinese anymore,'' Yip said. ''I, like
many people I know, send my kids to Chinese school.''

The proof is in the numbers. In a public school system of 9,100 students, only about 100 are in bilingual
education programs, said Sylvia Pattavina, director of the district's Transitional Bilingual Education
program. (Compare that to Brockton, where 1,270 of the district's nearly 17,000 students are in a
bilingual education program.)

Yet Pattavina and other Quincy educators and residents are concerned with how the change in the
curriculum could affect students who may not be able to learn English in one year, as the new
immersion system would require. Pattavina said that educators want to ensure that no child is left
behind, but it is too early to know what the effects will be. (Officials also have not determined the new
cost, though state data shows that in 2000, the district spent $12,998 on bilingual education per

''We are going to wait for some interpretation from the [state] Department of Education as to how to
proceed,'' Pattavina said.

She said that in most cases, foreign language children are able to transition into the mainstream
curriculum, whether they begin in bilingual education programs - which Quincy offers in Cantonese and
Vietnamese - or participate in the English as a Second Language program for students with some
English proficiency. There are about 40 languages found among the students in the ESL program,
Pattavina said.

''Usually, in as soon as two to three years, they are ready to transition,'' Pattavina said.

She said that the one-year limit imposed by the new English immersion law could be problematic unless
there are adequate safeguards for students who have trouble mastering the language.

Mayor William J. Phelan, who also chairs the School Committee, said that flexibility is essential in
providing the best education to students.

''Each individual, each student has to be looked at separately,'' Phelan said. ''When you have a young
elementary student, and you have older high school students ... there are two separate and distinct
needs there. We don't want to discourage learning English, [but] we don't want to remove the
recourses for some students who need extra help by way of bilingual education, either.''

Tackey Chan, lifelong Quincy resident and president of Quincy Asian Resources Inc., said that the
success of Question 2 is due to a consensus that learning English is essential.

''Everybody wants their kids to learn English, and that's the reason why it passed,'' Chan said. ''On that
point, everyone agrees. The question of how to do is more complicated.''

The question did not point out how a school system's resources could be taxed by putting immigrant
students in regular classes after a year, he said.

''If you have a kid in the classroom who doesn't speak English well, who is the teacher going to spend
more time with?'' Chan said. ''Or if the teacher doesn't spend that time, you have one child failing.''

Chan also said he worries that a provision allowing private civil action against teachers who break new
English immersion rules will ''scare off quality teachers who speak more than one language.''

Quincy Asian Resources Inc.'s new executive director, Taiwan-native Kao Li, said that the measure
could be a good move, but educators and lawmakers need to work in concert.

''All things being equal, my experience is that you learn better in an immersion setting,'' he said. ''But
what that presupposes is that you have the right supportive structure.''

Kimberly Atkins can be reached by e-mail at

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