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Supporters defend bilingual schooling


Staff writer

SPRINGFIELD - Hispanic leaders from across the region turned out in force yesterday to make a united statement against a voter initiative that would wipe out bilingual education.

Educators, politicians, agency heads and parents filled the board room of the School Department on State Street, describing the Nov. 5 binding ballot question as "mean spirited" and urging voters to defeat it.

"This is not a political issue. This is an educational issue. Our children should not be used as political pawns," said state Rep. Cheryl A. Rivera, D-Springfield.

However, Californian Ronald K. Unz, who is sponsoring the question, said in a telephone interview most parents are on his side.

"The vast majority of immigrant parents want their children to be taught English in school," Unz said. "They don't like these bilingual programs."

Under the ballot question, non-English speaking students would be placed in a "sheltered immersion" program, normally lasting a year. Instruction would be in English, though an instructor could use a minimal amount of a child's native language when necessary.

A student would be placed in regular classes after a year under the question sponsored by Unz.

The educators and advocates who gathered yesterday said that typically, children need more than a year to adjust to another language.

In California, where Unz sponsored a similar question that voters passed in 1998, more than 1 million children remain unprepared for mainstream classrooms after a year the immersion program, speakers said.

Local advocates for bilingual education said those children are losing out, and society eventually will pay.

"The California initiative has proven to be a failure for many children. Educators are dismally frustrated by the rollback," said Springfield Superintendent Joseph P. Burke.

Others attending the event were state Rep. Christopher P. Asselin, D-Springfield; Gumercindo Gomez, executive director of the Puerto Rican Veterans Association of Massachusetts; Juan Gerena, executive director of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, and Timothy T. Collins, president of the Springfield Teachers Association.

There were also people from area communities including Westfield, Chicopee, Amherst and Holyoke. Carlos A. Vega, executive director of Nueva Esperanza, a nonprofit Holyoke agency that restores historic buildings for affordable housing, said the bilingual ballot question is part of a pattern.

"It seems the Latino community is always under attack. This bill not only is an affront to immigrants, it's a slap in the face to Puerto Ricans, who are United States citizens," he said.

Collins said many children will be hurt under the plan to limit bilingual services to children.

"When you have one child with issues that are not being addressed properly, every child in the classroom suffers. People need to be aware of the true impact of this plan," he said.

In Springfield, 3,000 of the 27,000 public school children are in the bilingual program, which was revamped this year and renamed "English Language Learning." Most are native Spanish speakers, and all are learning under a model where academics are taught in English with support in the native language only where needed. The program has a goal
of preparing children for regular classrooms in two years.

Staff writer Dan Ring contributed to this report.

Mary Ellen O'Shea may be contacted at moshea@union-news.com


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