City weighs future of bilingual education
By SUSAN McMAHON, Lowell Sun Staff
Tuesday, April 29, 2003 - 11:32:24 AM EST
LOWELL Is a year enough time to learn a new language?
What about the psychological aspect of mainstreaming kids too soon?
Will the quality in the classrooms remain the same?
The Lowell schools are in the process of designing a whole new way of
instructing students who do not speak English, and city parents and educators
The Citywide Parent Council's meeting last night focused on the topic of
bilingual education where it has been, where it's going, and how education
officials hope to get there.
Most of the discussion focused around the Question 2 ballot initiative, which
virtually eliminated native-language instruction in Massachusetts, and a federal
court decree under which Lowell operates its bilingual-education system.
School districts are expected to begin implementing the Question 2 changes by
September. For Lowell, it's a questioning of balancing state and
federal requirements while trying to find the best way to teach English language
"It's a big change in a very short time for school districts," said Jean Franco,
interim assistant superintendent for student support services.
Under Question 2, which was passed by voters in November, students will have one
year of sheltered English immersion before being transferred into a mainstream
classroom. With the consent of parents, children can stay in immersion classes
for a maximum of two years.
The federal consent decree, implemented after a court case involving Lowell
schools, requires support for students new to the country in their native
To reconcile the two positions, school officials are planning to transition
students into mainstream classes while offering them native-language
support for points of clarification. If a student does not understand a certain
point being made in English, a teacher can clarify in the student's native
"In Lowell, the mix is going to be difficult because we have to comply with
native support, especially for newcomers," Franco said.
But while mainstreaming students and teaching them English quickly, school
leaders also need to keep in mind the importance of helping children
acclimate to a new culture and a new country, while retaining their heritage,
"That transition period can be very hard," said Lowell High senior Valter
DeSouza, Jr. "There's definitely a culture clash, and there's also a fear."
"It's very important to get a sense of self within a new culture," said Elaine
Theriault, head of Lowell High School's bilingual-education department.
"It's an opportunity for this organization and school district to recognize
that, validate that and move forward."
Budget constraints are also an issue, as the school district is drastically
changing its bilingual-education program at a time when cuts to the School
Department's budget are predicted to be deep.
And some parents expressed concern that a large number of students without a
comprehensive grasp of English would both bring down the
quality of instruction in mainstream classrooms and be more likely to be
retained or referred for special education.
"I understand we've got to follow the law, but it seems to me many of our
at-risk students are English language learners," said Citywide Parent
Council President Jackie Doherty. "And if we're pushing them, are we going to
lose more of them?"
Panelists said the key to avoiding such cases is to focus on making connections
between the student and services that could help him, such as
a new dropout prevention program at Lowell High School.
And school officials said they would keep an eye on the effectiveness of the new
"We have an incredible challenge," Franco said. "We have to keep watch."
Susan McMahon's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .