By Joanna Massey, Globe Staff
all of the students in Nory Harris's fifth- and sixth-grade bilingual
Cape Verdean class at Brockton's Gilmore Elementary School have lived
in the United States for less than two years.
None spoke English before coming here, and some had never been to
school. They had to be taught how to hold a pencil, how to sit at a
desk, and how to behave in a classroom. When her new students arrive
in the fall, Harris knows she will need to again convey those lessons
-- but this time using much more English than their native Creole.
As school districts gear up for the implementation of the state's
new English immersion law, approved by 68 percent of Massachusetts
voters last fall, Brockton and other communities with large immigrant
populations face significant challenges. Their longstanding bilingual
education program has, for most, been replaced with one-year English
immersion classes aimed at mainstreaming students with limited English
proficiency more quickly.
''They're going to have only 12 months to learn English well enough
to take the MCAS test,'' Harris said. ''People don't realize that we
do use English everyday, but the newcomers need more Creole and we use
it to clarify and explain.''
While debate continues on Beacon Hill over proposed amendments to
scale back the immersion law, Governor Mitt Romney has said he will
veto those attempts. Under the mandate of the law, the state Board of
Education last month approved new guidelines for bilingual education
that require students to ''learn English through a sheltered English
immersion program for a period of time not normally intended to exceed
one school year.'' The law allows parents of children over the age of
10 to apply for a waiver to keep the student in a bilingual program.
In Brockton, where 40 percent of the city's 1,700 students speak a
language other than English in their home, bilingual programs
currently are offered in 26 languages. School officials say the new
immersion regulations probably will have the most impact on the
Spanish language program because those students are taught to read and
write in their native language before transitioning into English.
''In the other programs, we don't have materials available in the
native language so the major language is already English,'' said Jose
Pinheiro, director of bilingual programs for the school department.
''So this will not be too different from what we're doing now.''
Pinheiro said the average length of stay for students in Brockton
bilingual programs is 2.7 years. He said the district mainstreams
about one third of its bilingual students each year. Like bilingual
educators in other communities, Brockton teachers and administrators
said that federal civil rights laws supersede the English immersion
''Children aren't going to learn the language any faster,'' said
Margaret Adams, who oversees the city's bilingual programs for
students in kindergarten through Grade 8. ''Even the [state Department
of Education] had to look at Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and
realizes that you can't force students out after a year.''
Adams said she believes more parents will seek to keep students in
the bilingual program through waivers. She said she is ''very
concerned'' with the decision to replace the structured 30-year-old
bilingual system with one created with a law she called ''unstructured
and inadequately researched.''
But she said Brockton has worked hard to make next fall's
transition to immersion a smooth one.
''Other cities like Lowell are making dramatic changes, but we've
tried to keep it pretty stable,'' Adams said. ''I think the biggest
impact will be the accountability piece and getting these kids ready
Through changes adopted by the state to comply with the federal No
Child Left Behind Act, all bilingual students -- regardless of when
they arrived in the country -- must now take the Massachusetts
Comprehensive Assessment Systems test. Before, students were eligible
for state standardized testing following their third year of schooling
At Brockton's East Junior High School, that meant 127 additional
bilingual students were tested in April, said principal Donald
Helder Varela, site coordinator of the school's bilingual
department and a math teacher in the Cape Verdean program, said he
believes the MCAS requirement is unreasonable.
''Anyone who arrived prior to Oct. 1 had to take the test, so if
you got here Sept. 30, you took it,'' he said. Since the top bilingual
students are mainstreamed more quickly, it is the most limited English
speakers whose scores represent the population classified as
bilingual. ''Students move up so we never really get credit for what
we do. It gives people the wrong impression of what goes on at the
Varela said he also worries about students who are not ready to
leave English immersion programs after one year being placed in
special education classes. ''The state is going to have to spend a lot
more because special education is more costly,'' he said.
During a sunny afternoon last week, East Junior High School math
teacher Alfred Septembre walked 18 Haitian eighth-graders through
algebraic equations. One student, dressed in a San Antonio Spurs
basketball jersey, asked a question about graphing the slope of the
equation and appeared confused with Septembre's answer.
Speaking mostly in English, the teacher then threw in several words
in Haitian Creole and was greeted by nods of understanding. Whether
Septembre will feel as free to use the students' native language in
the fall remains to be seen.
Joanna Massey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story ran on page 1 of the Globe South section
Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.