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Three months after Massachusetts public schools launched voter-approved English immersion classes for thousands of immigrant children, reality is hitting home for their teachers: Many students will have to remain in immersion classes longer than the one-year time limit specified by the new law.
When voters considered Question 2 last year, the proposition seemed simple: Immerse non-English-speaking students in the language so they could soak it up, rather than place them in bilingual education. The latter approach eased them into English over a period of months or years by teaching them in their native tongues, ranging from Spanish to Gujarati, which is spoken primarily in the state of Gujarat on the western coast of India. Immersion classes were not normally to exceed one year, which is in line with federal laws prohibiting precise time constraints on English-support classes.
But with the school year one-third complete, teachers are watching the challenge unfold with every word game, number recitation, and handwriting assignment. And with the clock ticking toward June, when limited-English students must be able to speak English fluently enough to enter mainstream classes, teachers and principals fear that many students will not be ready to make the switch.
"There's no way in a full year they're going to get academic English," said Maribel Gervais, a first-grade immersion teacher at the Joseph A. McAvinnue School in Lowell. "They need more time. Right now what you're seeing is survival English and social English."
About 200 of Massachusetts' 373 districts and charter schools enroll limited-English students, and all are required to have immersion. The state counts more than 50,000 students as limited-English, but not all are in immersion because some received waivers to stay in bilingual education, which is allowed under Question 2.
The ballot question was partly financed by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz, who successfully backed similar antibilingual education initiatives in California and Arizona.
State Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll has urged schools to keep struggling students in another year of English immersion if they need it, and even some Question 2 supporters concede that many children might. Research from California showed that 5 to 10 percent of English-learners left immersion within a year or less.
"We don't expect miracles for every single child. We expect there will be different rates of progress, but the responsibility is to continue to give all the extra help they can as long as they need to give it," said Rosalie Pedalino Porter, head of English for the Children of Massachusetts, the group that pushed Question 2.
The one-year limit "is not an unreasonable goal," Porter said. "Maybe in a lot of cases, a lot of progress can be made in one year, provided children are exposed to the target language and have teachers that know what they're doing."
In fact, teacher training is one of the biggest hurdles in the immersion experiment, state officials and educators say. Some school systems, such as Framingham, put immersion teachers in professional development before the school year started. Others, such as Chelsea, expect teachers to sign up for training during the school year. Almost no districts have begun training mainstream teachers who have never taught limited-English students but will have to adapt their techniques next year after some immersion students enter their classrooms.
"Mainstream teachers have to become aware that at some point, they are also responsible for the education of these children," said Donaldo Macedo, director of the applied linguistics graduate program at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, which has sponsored some teacher training. "After one year of total immersion, these children will filter into their classrooms. Some will be prepared, and some will not be."
Gervais, at the McAvinnue School in Lowell, sees that divide almost daily among her 20 first-graders, which is why she thinks that only five or six will leave immersion next year.
The school year got off to a teary start for Jeudry Sanchez, who sobbed on the first day of school in August, bewildered by a language he could barely comprehend and overwhelmed by the unknown faces in front of him. But his tears gave way to some remarkable progress as Jeudry began speaking and reading English, albeit slowly.
"Jeudry, what do you want to write about today?" Gervais asked one recent morning as her class opened their journals.
"Baseball," Jeudry, 6, replied, his Spanish accent still audible. "No, Mrs. Gervais, skateboards! I like skateboards. Mehul," he said, turning to one of his classmates, "how do you spell skateboard?"
When Jeudry is upset, he slips into Spanish, better able to express himself in his native tongue. But Gervais likes his progress, something fueled by the boy's willingness to take risks. His mother, Yunay Santana, is pleased too.
"I'm very satisfied," Santana said through a translator. "I didn't think he was going to learn English so quickly."
Things are slower for Stephanie Borrero, 7. Like Jeudry, she came from Puerto Rico at the beginning of the school year speaking no English. And she still barely can, despite being surrounded by it all day. In front of a chart with colored images marking each day's weather in November, Gervais asked Stephanie how many sunny days there were in November so far.
The child looked blankly at Gervais, who repeated the question in Spanish, then helped her count the answer in English. "One. Two Three. Four. Five," Gervais said.
"She tries. She told me the other day, `I want to know English. I'm trying so hard. I'm doing a good job, right?' " Gervais said later. "It was all in Spanish."
While many parents support the goal of learning English quickly, those with older children are worried because their child's lessons are far more complicated than those in elementary school. Question 2 permits waivers for children older than 10 to stay in bilingual education, but some parents, such as Aleyda Taborda, had not heard of the option. Taborda's daughter, Kerry Gutierrez, 10, is a sixth-grader at the Clark Avenue School in Chelsea.
"It's hard for children to change your original language," said Taborda, whose daughter came from Colombia a year ago. "My daughter has just stayed here for [twelve] months. She cannot speak fast English."
What worries Kerry's teacher, Julie Sampson, is that her students must complete a year's worth of work while learning English. So in her fifth- and sixth-grade classroom, students read about the Vikings' explorations while also glancing upward at illustrated examples of the alphabet more suited for first grade, such as apples under "A" and fish under "F."
Sampson also has to skip lessons in order to repeat others, which virtually guarantees that her students will not complete a year's worth of work. That could impact the school's MCAS scores. And she must simplify everything: With a lesson on the Vikings on the overhead projector, for example, sentences read, "Vikings would raid (steal from). Vikings were intelligent (very smart). Vikings were fierce (very mean)."
Six months remain in the school year, and Sampson knows that progress will be made. What she doesn't know is whether it will be fast enough for Question 2.
"I don't know if bilingual education was better," Sampson said. "I don't know if immersion is better. But I do know that learning a language takes a lot of time."
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.