Teachers urge voters to keep bilingual ed
By JENNETTE BARNES, Standard-Times staff writer

October 28, 2002

NEW BEDFORD -- Three New Bedford bilingual education teachers urged Latino voters yesterday to reject a switch from bilingual education to English immersion. 

At a forum sponsored by the Hispanic Presence Committee, they asked voters assembled in the basement of the Senora de Guadalupe Church in the city's South End to spread the word: Vote "no" on statewide ballot question 2.

"Mainly, the parents who were here don't speak English. It's difficult for them to help their children because of the generational gap, but if children are taught only in English, it is worse," bilingual high school teacher Naim Benavente said after the forum. "This would just bring families down," he said.

Teachers Graciela Cardoza and Dominga Ocasio also participated in the forum.  Although yesterday's event focused on the Latino community, the issue touches the many Portuguese-speaking students in SouthCoast as well, and numerous linguistic groups statewide.

Proponents of bilingual education say the proposed immersion system, which prohibits teachers from helping children in their native language after the first year, makes learning English more difficult.  "The issue isn't that we don't want our children to learn English, because we know they have to. The issue is, how they are going to learn," said Edwin Aldarondo of the Hispanic Presence Committee.

The forum did not address specific candidates for office, but Mr. Aldarondo told the group that the Republican Party has been one of the biggest proponents of English immersion.  Mitt Romney, the Republican running for governor, has pledged to eliminate bilingual education in favor of immersion; Democratic candidate Shannon P. O'Brien supports a bilingual approach.

Mr. Aldarondo called on New Bedford officials to take a stand on the issue, saying he has heard "not a word" from the School Committee or Mayor Frederick M. Kalisz, Jr.  Mr. Aldarondo said English immersion is a "fraud" that has failed in California.  California businessman Ron K. Unz has funded efforts to eliminate bilingual education in California, Arizona and Massachusetts. 

Critics of Mr. Unz's, including the Multilingual Action Coalition in Amherst, say the initiative is racist, painting it as a move to preserve the dominance of English and European culture.  But Lincoln Tamayo, leader of the Massachusetts group pushing for immersion, scoffs at the idea. A Cuban immigrant himself, Mr. Tamayo learned English in an immersion-style program in Florida.

He points out that parents could apply for waivers of the immersion requirement. If 20 or more students in one grade level at a school received waivers, the school would have to offer bilingual education classes.  English for the Children of Massachusetts, the group led by Mr. Tamayo, argues that the best way to give children educational and economic opportunities is to ensure that they learn English as quickly as possible.

In fact, all the interests involved say they want children to learn English. As Mr. Aldarondo said, the question is how.
Some educators are organizing against Question 2 because of its lawsuit component. It would allow parents to sue any school employee, administrator, school committee member or elected official for refusing to implement the program. Individuals could be held personally liable, without reimbursement from a third party such as a municipality, and could
be barred from public school employment or election to a school committee for five years.

In the 2002 Information for Voters guide published by the Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth, the state Legislature's Joint Committee on Education, Arts and Humanities makes a unanimous statement opposing Question 2. They condemn the immersion approach as "simplistic" and "inflexible" and say it takes away local districts' choices.
Testimony to the committee did not show that the California law narrowed the achievement gap between native and non-native English speakers, according to the voter guide.

This story appeared on Page A4 of The Standard-Times on October 28, 2002.


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