Original URL: http://www.southcoasttoday.com/daily/11-02/11-03-02/b01sr052.htm

Understanding question 2
By AMI ALBERNAZ, Standard-Times correspondent
The Standard-Times, November 3, 2002

When Helena Marques came to New Bedford from Madeira at the age of 10, she could not speak English at all. She was placed in a bilingual classroom, where her teacher and classmates helped her to feel welcome.
"I felt like I belonged," she said. "All the students spoke English with heavy accents, so it wasn't intimidating."

After graduating from New Bedford High School in 1978, Ms. Marques went on to earn a bachelor's degree in business
administration and law from Newbury College, where she was class valedictorian. She is now the executive director of the Immigrants' Assistance Center in the city's South End.

She still credits the bilingual program with helping her adjust to her new surroundings and learn English without feeling

Yet, while others who studied in bilingual classes agree that they helped to ease the transition into a new country, not all of their sentiments are as positive as Ms. Marques'. 

The Rev. Gabriel Fabian, a Baptist minister who was a substitute teacher in New Bedford schools for three years, said that from what he has seen, the current bilingual system does not work.

"We have some bilingual teachers without a formal curriculum," he said. "We don't have a standard."

He said he has seen third-graders in one bilingual class who could not read in English or in their native language, and called it "heartbreaking."

The debate over the value of bilingual education has prompted a statewide referendum on its fate. On Nov. 5, voters will decide whether to keep the current system or to implement a one-year "sheltered immersion" program.

Under the current system, students are gradually introduced to English while learning other subjects in their native tongue, and generally enter regular classes within three years. Under sheltered immersion, non-English speaking students would be taught school subjects in English from the very beginning, with minimal use of a native language. Ideally, the students would be transferred to mainstream (English-only) classes after one year.

The sheltered immersion initiative is financially backed by California millionaire Ron Unz, who successfully spearheaded similar initiatives in California in 1998 and in Arizona 2000. He and his supporters maintain that the current system has failed many students by keeping them in non-English speaking classes with teachers who are sometimes unqualified.

While immersion proponents say that many students are capable of learning much more quickly than the current bilingual system allows, they acknowledge that it might be more difficult for older students. For this reason, waivers could be granted for children who are older than 10 or who have special needs, which would allow them to take traditional bilingual classes.

In New Bedford and Fall River, where a combined 1,450 students are in Portuguese and Spanish bilingual classes, teachers and administrators fear that a one-year program would lead to frustration and failure. Besides adding strain to
mainstream classrooms that are already overcrowded, many say that one year simply is not enough to acquire the level of English needed to learn their subjects.

"Any research shows that it takes three to five years to learn a language," said Richard Pavao, superintendent of Fall River schools and former director of the city's bilingual education program. He added that passage of the referendum
would set into place a "very negative process" in which some non-native speaking students would be required to take the MCAS exams immediately after one year in the school system, rather than three.

"Test scores would drop, and the students just won't feel very good," he said.

However, two years after the referendum passed in California, standardized test scores indicated that reading and math scores had risen for students who had been placed in sheltered immersion classrooms -- leading news outlets and some inside California's school system to proclaim the one-year immersion a success.

Others, meanwhile, cautioned that other factors might have been at work, such as a reduction in class sizes and a tendency to teach skills specifically targeted in standardized exams. They maintain that more time to evaluate the
program is needed.

"The Unz program has given students a lot of verbal skills, which can be learned quite quickly," Mr. Pavao said. "It'll take more time to see how well they are learning in other areas."

In New Bedford, a program similar to sheltered immersion already exists. An English-as-a-Second-Language class at the city's Winslow Elementary School is composed of students from Pakistan, Poland, Russia and China -- countries
without enough representation to allow for separate bilingual classes. In the ESL classes, students are taught all subjects except art, music and physical education in slow-paced English.

Teacher Maria Santos said most students stay in ESL classes for two to three years before being mainstreamed. She said that because the pace of instruction is slower than in regular classes, students are often a little behind when they leave ESL. Ms. Santos believes that one year in a sheltered classroom is not enough.

"They would still be behind when they enter a mainstream classroom," she said. "For a few of these students, it was traumatic to leave their country, and sometimes they are dealing with that during the first year. Having to go to a
regular class would be overwhelming for them."

Bilingual teachers, meanwhile, fear that by ending bilingual classes, students might feel lost in larger classes, rather than welcome and comfortable in small bilingual groups. Julie Neal, a second-grade bilingual teacher at Hayden-McFadden Elementary School, encourages her students to use English, but allows them to express themselves in English or Spanish. She said she fears that a transition to a mainstream classroom would be detrimental to several of her students who struggle with English, who might not find the support they need in a mainstream class.

While they enjoy learning with the help of their native language, "their smiles might be lost in a regular classroom," Ms. Neal said. She added that in the bilingual classes, students are encouraged to speak about their heritage and to feel proud, which she does not think would happen in mainstream classes. Those in favor of one-year immersion, meanwhile, say that schools should focus on teaching students English and placing them into mainstream classrooms as quickly as possible. Lincoln Tamayo, the head of the campaign for English immersion in Massachusetts and a Cuban immigrant, said that while he wholeheartedly endorses teaching foreign languages and celebrating cultural heritage, English needs to be emphasized.

"This would be a richer country if everyone knew more than one language," Mr. Tamayo said. "But we've got to give students the ability to defend themselves in the language that is used here." He added that the immersion program would allow for small amounts of the native language to be used when needed to explain more difficult concepts, and that small amounts could be incorporated into lessons pertaining to culture.

Even among bilingual education advocates, most would not argue that the current system has its problems. Alicia Fabian, the Rev. Fabian's wife, who taught a fifth-grade bilingual class last year, noted that simultaneous pressures to teach
English and prepare students for the MCAS exams prevented either from being done very well.

Yet Ms. Fabian and most others say that the one-year sheltered immersion is not the solution, and state lawmakers seem to agree. In hopes of pre-empting the referendum, a reform measure was passed in July that would put a limit on the amount of time students could remain in bilingual classes in exchange for mandatory yearly testing. If the referendum does not pass, the reform would take place next fall.

State Rep. Antonio F. D. Cabral of New Bedford said the reform should be given a chance before more stringent measures are taken.

"The reform creates accountability on the part of the school system and the student, which was not in place before," Rep. Cabral said. He added that under the reform, parents would be given a significant role in drafting bilingual programs, and schools would be allowed to choose which sort of bilingual program is most appropriate for their students.

However, supporters of the one-year immersion dismiss the reform as an attempt to hold onto a failed system.

Some who oppose the referendum say that many voters who are in favor of the one-year immersion program do not fully understand how it would impact non-English-speaking students.

Mr. Pavao said more support for the referendum would come from wealthier suburbs than from cities, and that many of those who would be affected by the change in law cannot vote. In California in 1998, exit polls indicated that most white voters approved of the one-year immersion plan, while most Latino voters did not. White voters, however, made up a much larger portion of voters than did Latinos. Mr. Pavao added that sentiment toward foreigners post-Sept. 11, 2001,
has not helped the pro-bilingual cause.

Faced with the prospect of the referendum passing (current polls indicate that around 60 percent of voters statewide approve of it), some local Latino activists are trying to gather opposition to it prior to Nov. 5. Edwin Aldarondo, a member of the Hispanic Presence Committee, said the Unz initiative should not be implemented, given questionable data from California and lack of funds locally.

"Our school systems do not have the funds or an adequate number of teachers to implement this program," Mr. Aldarondo said. While he also thinks that the current bilingual system is not working, "we should be breaking our
heads to find a solution, rather than scrapping the whole system."

This story appeared on Page B1 of The Standard-Times on November 3, 2002.


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