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Bilingual law a challenge to schools

The Boston Globe

6/8/2003

By Joanna Massey, Globe Staff

Almost 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 mandate.

''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 for MCAS.''

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 in Massachusetts.

At Brockton's East Junior High School, that meant 127 additional bilingual students were tested in April, said principal Donald Burrell.

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 school.''

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 massey@globe.com.

This story ran on page 1 of the Globe South section on 6/8/2003.
Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.