Saying 'si' to immersion:Youths in all-Spanish unit thrive
By Lisa Kocian, Globe Staff Correspondent, 10/20/2002
One by one, the seventh-graders dragged themselves to the front of the room, a
parade of ponytails, braces,
and ''Millis Soccer'' shirts. While their solo presentations were meant to
showcase their map skills, what made
this social studies class different than most was the vocabulary used.
Instead of mountains, pupils talked about montanas; instead of countries, paises.
This class was the pilot group for the Millis school system's Spanish immersion
program. The pupils began together in
first grade, speaking nothing but Spanish all day through every subject, and the
program grew by one grade level
each time they did. Plans are for the immersion to extend through the 12th
grade, when these children reach their
''It's very unique to the town because we're not a bilingual town,'' said Andrew
Zitoli, the Millis Middle School
principal. ''Millis is kind of like Mayberry.''
Indeed, this class represents a rare opportunity in Massachusetts. Although
there are similar classroom scenes that
included pupils who speak Spanish as their first language, there are only a
handful of programs like this one for native
The distinction is important, because Millis is not part of the bilingual
education debate. That issue has led to a
November statewide ballot question seeking to require that children who don't
speak English be placed in
English-only classes, rather than the existing transitional setting that allows
children to learn in their native language
Instead, Millis is much more likely to find itself participating in a debate
over when and how foreign languages should
Last month, the state Department of Education released a report on foreign
language teaching and learning across
all grades, prekindergarten through Grade 12. It represents one small step
toward fulfilling the goal set out in a 1996
law - to include foreign languages among the subjects tested statewide to
determine high school competency.
That means foreign languages will eventually be part of the Massachusetts
Comprehensive Assessment System tests,
but not for ''several years,'' according to Susan Wheltle. The reason for the
wait is largely financial.
''The difficulty the department has right now is our staffing has been cut,''
she said. ''We don't have the foreign
language specialists to carry out the work.''
Even so, last month's report included a plan of action to lay a foundation for
eventual statewide assessment of foreign
language proficiency. It calls for establishing an ad hoc advisory committee
made up of foreign language department
heads from around the state, who will look at, among other things, existing
tests and how to assess proficiency
beginning at the high school level.
These plans are what inspired the Millis immersion program. When Superintendent
Caroline White arrived in 1995,
the state was talking about testing beginning in the fourth grade. Millis had no
foreign language program at the time.
By the next school year, beginning in 1996, the pilot group was in the first
grade and pupils spent their entire day
speaking Spanish, the language chosen by parents as the most useful, White said.
Now, some first- and second-graders are instructed entirely in Spanish. The rest
of the grade levels spend half a day in
Spanish and half in English. About 20 percent of the pupils in each grade - 1
through 7 - are enrolled in the
White said the immersion pupils do just as well on the MCAS - even on the
third-grade reading test, where they might
be expected to falter after two years of Spanish-only instruction.
''Reading is a transferrable skill,'' she explained.
Although the School Department looks at the scores on MCAS and other tests to
make sure that immersion students
aren't struggling because of their bilingual instruction, White said she would
not release scores for fear of pitting one
group against another.
That has been a concern among parents, not specifically on test scores, but in
general that immersion pupils would
be cut off socially from the rest of the children.
The immersion program was one reason Carol Baker and her family moved to Millis.
She said she almost changed her mind a couple of days before enrolling her son
David, who is now in the sixth grade,
in the program. Now all three of her children are in the immersion program.
Baker said that while she was concerned about the potential for the pupils to be
isolated, much to her relief the school
addressed that by making sure they have plenty of chances to mix.
The one subject where immersion students might be expected to lag behind,
according to research, is spelling, White
said, but she added, ''I think that's a very small tradeoff for having fluency
in another language.''
Millis has done no formal testing to assess what level of proficiency the pupils
have attained in Spanish, but officials
say anecdotal evidence shows that even the young children have gone well beyond
the average high school Spanish
Starting so young, they can develop ''a near-native fluency,'' said Yvonne
McArthur, a third-grade teacher who grew
up in South America with a mother from Cuba. ''I speak to them very quickly just
like I would if I were in Cuba, and
they understand me. And they speak to me very quickly and they don't have an
English accent at all.''
Lisa Kocian can be reached at 508-820-4231 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story ran on page W1 of the Globe West section on 10/20/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.