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Bilingual: Issue keys debate

Union News
Staff writers

Inside a bilingual education classroom in Chicopee, Henry Pabon, 10, looks over the shoulder of his cousin, Juan C. Martinez, 12, and watches as the older boy slowly writes in English, "You can say to other people, sorry."

Over in another corner of the classroom at the James C. Selser School, Pabon's brother, Kelvin Lugo, 12, bends forward over his desk and works on a similar exercise.

Welcome to the classroom of bilingual teacher Josue Perez. Only two of the 11 children were born in the United States. Some have bounced back and forth between this country and their native countries, with most coming from Puerto Rico. At almost all of their homes, the parents speak only Spanish.

Perez, 41, teaches in English and in Spanish, saying it's the best way to develop their English skills. Like other bilingual educators across the state, he is concerned about a ballot measure that could change the way he is allowed to teach his students.

"It's going to perpetuate the problem," Perez said. "If they are put into classrooms with no native language skills, they won't be able to succeed."

But Lincoln J. Tamayo, a Cuban-born educator and former Chelsea High School principal, said the question known as the Unz initiative is the only way to level a playing field in which bilingual students have lost ground.

"We can no longer abide segregating tens of thousands of Spanish-speaking children into native language classrooms that stunt their growth toward success," said Tamayo, chairman of English for the Children, the group pushing the ballot question.

The ballot proposal, organized by California software millionaire Ronald K. Unz, calls for all non-English speaking students to receive English immersion for one year before being transferred into regular classrooms. If approved by most voters on Nov. 5, Question 2 would supplant "transitional bilingual education," which provides for teaching subjects
such as math and history in the native languages of students and  gradually introducing them to English.

Opponents of the Unz initiative say it is a day late and a dollar short.

The bilingual system in the state already has undergone dramatic revisions this year. A state law that received bipartisan support and the acting governor's signature now limits time in the program to no more than  three years and provides for state review of underperforming districts.

Under the Unz initiative, parents could seek waivers to keep their children in bilingual education, but only if they meet certain requirements, including that the child already knows English, is at least 10 years old or has special needs. Parents could also sue educators who repeatedly teach their children in their native language.

The lawsuit provision has galvanized opponents, who say it is a dangerous precedent that could jeopardize teachers who innocently use a phrase in a student's native language.

Supporters of the Unz initiative - first enacted in California in 1998 - say the measure was designed to thwart educators who publicly vowed they would continue to teach in a student's native language. They also say not a single Unz-related suit has been filed against a teacher in that state in four years.

The Unz initiative is driven by years of poor success rates among many bilingual students, the majority of them Spanish speakers. Indeed, Holyoke is now a defendant in a federal lawsuit because its scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test are among the lowest in the state.

The suit says poor scores registered by Hispanic and black students in districts such as Springfield and Holyoke, which is 70 percent Hispanic, show the test is inherently biased against minorities.

But supporters of bilingual education say the system can work, and that a one-size-fits-all approach may be detrimental to education.

Springfield educators point to MCAS data showing that bilingual students beat the city average this year in one grade.

Tenth-graders in Springfield earned an overall 226 score on the MCAS tests given in May in language arts, or in the "needs improvement" category. Bilingual students beat the overall average with a 230. Other group scores: blacks, 228; Asians, 233; Hispanics, 222; and whites, 236.

Parents, educators and elected leaders across the state are battling over the Unz question, which has become a key issue in the governor's race between Republican W. Mitt Romney, who supports the measure, and Democrat Shannon P. O'Brien, who opposes it.

Detractors say the new bilingual education law already addresses problems in the system and establishes accountability.

"The new law will get the state out of the business of telling communities what to do and will allow parents and educators to make their own decisions," said Timothy Duncan, a Cambridge lawyer and chairman of the Committee for Fairness to Children and Teachers, the group opposed to the ballot question.

Polls show the new law may have little impact on voters considering the Unz initiative. A poll, released Sept. 29 by the Boston Globe and WBZ-TV, Channel 4, showed 59 percent of voters approving the question and only 31 percent in opposition.

Tamayo and other supporters of the Unz initiative point to California as an example of its successes. Four years after its passage there, overall test scores among students with limited English proficiency rose and English proficiency improved, they say.

Detractors say the scores rose for all children and that only 9 percent of students are actually moved out of bilingual programs after the first year.

Supporters of the Unz initiative say the poor transition rate into English-only programs is reflective of a system in which school districts receive more state and federal dollars for each non-English proficient student. Detractors refute that, saying federal dollars are so scant - just 8 percent, or $25 million of the total $300 million Springfield school budget
in 2001 - that any increase through grants is minimal and state dollars are often not contingent on English proficiency.

Arizona also passed an Unz initiative in 2000.

David P. Dolson, a spokesman for the California education department, said there's no direct link between the English proficiency test results and English immersion. Since the test was given only one year, there's no basis for comparison, he said.

In Western Massachusetts, some older immigrants said they learned English basically through immersion and they believe it's still the best way to develop the language. Maria Irene Neves of Holyoke, 70, said she doesn't understand how children learn English while also being instructed in their native language.

"It sounds confusing," said Neves, 70, who spoke only Portuguese when she moved to Holyoke in 1947. "We never had anybody speaking Portuguese for us. I believe if we come to this country, we should learn English."

Colette Lemieux-Ruel of the Leeds section of Northampton said instruction solely in English can work for people who don't know the language. After being raised in Quebec, she moved to Springfield to work in a mill in the South End and learned English through friends and co-workers and listening to people while riding public buses.

"When you come to another country, you should be prepared to learn the language," she said.

Even older immigrants are divided. Agma M. Sweeney of Westfield, who grew up in Puerto Rico, said she was immersed in English as a young girl in a Puerto Rican classroom, but she struggled with the language when she attended high school and college.

Sweeney said many immigrant children need more than one year of English. "In my opinion, it is impossible to provide in just one year the kind of instruction necessary for a successful mastery of the English language," said Sweeney, who is a student at Springfield Technical Community College.

Also affecting the debate is that the education and job picture has changed since many older immigrants went to school, with mastery of achievement tests now required for graduation and a greatly reduced number of jobs available to those who do not go on to get a college degree.

Critics of traditional bilingual education say that inequities are built into the system because different ethnic groups receive different teaching approaches. Russian and Asian children often receive more English-immersion instruction, they say, and have higher test results and spend fewer years in native-language instruction.

Some educators acknowledge that Hispanic children from Puerto Rico may receive more instruction in their native language because Puerto Rican students identify more with their homeland, which they often return to, sometimes within a given school year. Both sides acknowledge that the migration of Puerto Rican students between the mainland U.S. and
Puerto Rico can disrupt their education and influence academic progress.

Rep. Peter J. Larkin, D-Pittsfield, a key architect of the state's new law on bilingual education, said the law makes districts accountable and allows them to craft their own programs, including English immersion.

"The Unz initiative is a bumper sticker solution to an issue that is more complicated," Larkin said.

In a telephone interview, Unz said the law crafted by Larkin and others won't work because it allows districts to keep their current bilingual programs.

"It doesn't really do anything," said Unz, 41, a software developer who says he spent about $100,000 of his own money to collect about 95,000 signatures of registered voters to place the question on the ballot. "It doesn't really change any existing policies."

Before the new law was passed in August, there was no cap on the time students could spend in bilingual education. The new law also toughens certification standards for bilingual teachers and gives the state the clout
to demand changes in programs it deems "underperforming."

In Springfield, where 3,000 - or 11 percent - of the city's 27,000 public school students are in bilingual education, the program was overhauled this year to allow for more instruction in English. Bilingual Director Edgardo L. Reyes said all children are now being taught in English, with support in their native language only where needed. The new approach is
advancing in three phases over time.

Reyes said that 80 percent of bilingual children enter the mainstream within three years. The number jumps to 90 percent after four years.

While most students in the $12.4 million program are Spanish speakers, bilingual education also serves Russian and Vietnamese children.

Reyes and others, including Superintendent Joseph P. Burke, believe the new method will prove successful.

"It's going fairly well. I think we'll see some improvements this year," Reyes said.

Academic achievement data is now being collected at Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical High School and Washington Elementary School, which were the city's two official test sites for "sheltered English" last year.

At Putnam, teachers like Sonia P. Kjergaard and Jose L. Quinones say there is no doubt that teaching students in English is a good strategy. But both worry about a ballot law that could forbid them to use Spanish as a teaching tool, and opens them to possible lawsuits if they do.

"I speak to my students almost entirely in English. This program forces us to use more English in the classroom, and that's a good thing," said Quinones as he faced a class of 30 ninth- and 10th-graders. "But that law will punish teachers for helping students. I think it infringes on civil rights," he said.

Putnam has struggled with such poor MCAS scores that the school this year was placed on the state's underperforming list.

Kjergaard teaches calligraphy as an elective, and finds it helps bilingual students break down words. In her bilingual classes, she has watched students advance more quickly than when Spanish is the dominant language.

But she fears that the one-year time limit under the Unz proposal, along with the ban on using languages other than English, will backfire, pushing already under-achieving students further behind. "It's a rather underhanded way of singling out a population that doesn't have the advantages," she said.

Putnam sophomore Carmen L. Berrios, struggling with English after two years of bilingual education, believes the program has helped keep her on track and in school. She moved here with her family three years ago from Puerto Rico.

Speaking through a translator, she said the voter initiative would work against her.

"I probably will not be able to understand a lot if my teachers wouldn't be able to explain things to me," said Berrios, 15.

Seniors Abimael Sierra and Miguel A. Rosario moved into regular classes after two years of bilingual education as middle school students. Both feel strongly that students should not be forced out after just a year.

"If the kid is young enough, one year might be OK. But you get older and it's really hard," said Rosario, who is 17 and was born in the United States. His mother placed him in the bilingual program to learn Spanish.

Added Sierra, who was born in Puerto Rico, "The bilingual program taught me English, with patience. If I didn't have it I would have stayed back a couple of times."

None of the students' test performance records were available because of privacy laws.

Sau-Ping Y. Skelly is the mother of two children who learned in Spanish and English under the two-way bilingual program formerly at Brightwood Elementary School. She is also a teacher of English as a second language at Forest Park Middle School.

Her children thrived at Brightwood under a program she considered to be "delivered very well. It's all in the execution."

Limiting non-English speaking students to just one year would steer many children to disaster, she said.

"They need more time to learn the language. You can't just throw them in and say 'learn.' They need support," she said.

But Unz supporters like Rosalie Pedalino Porter, a former Springfield teacher who has authored a book on bilingual education and become a nationally known critic of the system, says the stakes are too high not to support the measure.

She says she watched the same students struggle in the system year after year.

"I hope we succeed for the sake of the kids," she said.

Staff writer Natalia E. Arbulu contributed to this story. Dan Ring can be reached at dring@union-news.com


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