Second in a series of occasional articles chronicling one family's experience with English immersion.
The date was written in chalk on the blackboard: December 12, 2003. The clock on the wall, still not adjusted to d aylight s aving t ime, ticked close to the end of the school day. A tiny Christmas tree and a poinsettia plant on the verge of blooming signalled the holiday season.
But Room 10, on the second floor of James Otis Elementary School in East Boston, whirred with a nervous energy not from season, or the approach of the weekend. It was abuzz with the jitters of 18 first-grade students about to get their first report cards.
They whispered and giggled to classmates. They waved their outstretched arms, eager to answer questions about the brook trout and its underwater habitat. They gripped crayons worn down to nubs and scrawled bright portraits of fish wriggling in the ocean.
And, one by one, the first-graders were called to their teacher's desk to receive a yellow manila envelope.
These report cards would be a first for Otis Elementary School as well. Last year, Otis was a bilingual school, where students who spoke little or no English received classes in their native languages.
But, this year, as required by the state's new English immersion law, students are being taught almost entirely in English. Non-English-speaking parents are grappling with a new world where letters from school officials, parent-teacher conferences, and even report cards will be in a language they may not read or understand.
The thought had been nagging at Carmen Martinez, whose son Alonso is in the first-grade class at Otis. Like many other immigrant parents, Martinez worried that her own fledgling English skills would hamper her ability to correctly interpret the report cards - the first benchmark of her son's progress in school.
When it was Alonso Martinez's turn to pick up the manila envelope, the 6-year-old stood wide-eyed and silent by Mrs. Lavinia Magazzu's side. He stared at the two sheets of folded white paper containing rows of academic categories and numbered grades.
A mother's challenge
Even as Alonso memorizes the alphabet and learns to sound out letters in Mrs. Magazzu's classroom, his mother is tackling the fundamentals of English grammar in an after-school class for parents.
Five days a week, for two hours every afternoon, Martinez and a dozen other parents stumble and struggle and persevere through English lessons taught by Susan Klaw. They are determined to master the new language, for their children as well as for themselves.
The goal may seem simple. But achieving it is not.
Most immigrant parents do not have access to free English classes such as the one run through the Boston Excels programs, which operates in four inner-city schools. For Carmen Martinez and her classmates, learning a new language is a challenge nearly as daunting as their move to a new country had been.
Tongues used to forming the rolling r's and soft d's of Spanish must now learn to stop short on the hard consonants of English. Sentence structures, memorized decades ago in grade school, must now be inverted and relearned.
Some parents, like Martinez, only have rudimentary educations in their native language, making the learning process even more problematic. Both Martinez and her husband, Genaro, a construction worker, never got past sixth grade in Mexico.
At the beginning of the school year, the couple had been filled with foreboding.
They were afraid that they would no longer be able to help their children with homework, slowing the academic progress of their two youngest sons - Yovanny, a third-grader at Samuel Adams Elementary, and Alonso, the first-grader at Otis. And they feared that the change would create a linguistic schism within their family, with parents speaking one language and children another.
The Martinez's eldest son, Edgar, 15, a 10th-grader at East Boston High School, speaks Spanish and English fluently. Their 1-year-old daughter, Ariana, whose Spanish vocabulary is snowballing rapidly, knows just one English word: mine.
"Very basic levels of communication can happen in both languages: Pass the salt. I need new tennis shoes,'' said Carola Suarez-Orozco, codirector of the Harvard Immigration Projects, where she studies how adolescent immigrants adapt to American society and schools. ``But the big issue in family dynamics is the discussion of desires and needs, and that takes a higher level of linguistic skills. At a certain point, children argue in the language of competence and that's generally the language of education.''
Every weekday evening, just after Carmen Martinez gets home from English class, the Martinez family does homework together in the living room. No exceptions. Not even on the Tuesday night before Thanksgiving, when there would only be a half-day of school the next day, followed by a four-day weekend.
Alonso learned that when he tried to pout and plead and wheedle his way out of a 12-page homework assignment. Instead, his mother nodded toward his black-and-blue knapsack, and wordlessly ordered Alonso to pull out the sheaf of worksheets.
``En la noche hago. No hay escuela maÄnana?'' (I'll do it later tonight. There's no school tomorrow, right?) said Alonso, still trying to convince his mother to relent.
``Si hay clase,'' (There is school) insisted Carmen.
``Hazlo ahora or I'm not going to play with you,'' chimed in older brother Edgar speaking in a mixture of Spanish and English.
This time, Alonso obeyed. He sprawled on the floor and began writing sentences using new vocabulary words.
``Como se escribe Sad Sam?'' (How do you write Sad Sam?) Alonso asked, turning to Edgar, who crouched down by his younger brother.
``Sad. Es. Ay. Em,'' Edgar responded, spelling the second word out in English.
A few minutes later, Alonso asked the same question. He wanted to use the name in another sentence.
This time, Carmen answered. ``Ese. Ah. Eme.'' She pronounced the letters in Spanish, but spelled the name correctly.
Alonso's report card
By the time Alonso and the rest of the first-graders in Mrs. Magazzu's class rustled down the stairs and rushed out the back doors of the Otis School on Friday, Carmen Martinez and other parents were already waiting outside.
Alonso darted to his mother's side. Carmen ruffled his black hair with one hand and pulled him close with the other. Then, the two went into the school basement cafeteria, where Alonso attends an after-school program.
There, Carmen Martinez asked the inevitable: ``Donde esta la libreta?'' (Where's the report card?).
Both parent and child took a deep breath. Alonso was anxious to see his mother's reaction. Carmen was anxious to see if she could read the report card.
Two report cards were inside the yellow manila envelope that Alonso yanked from his knapsack. One was in English. The other was in Spanish.
Carmen exhaled first.
"I was afraid that it would all be in English,'' Carmen said in Spanish, explaining her relief. "For me. it's much better this way.''
She opened the Spanish version, and slowly ran her index finger along the row of grades. Alonso needed to improve in Reading and Math, but he had scored well in behavior, academic effort, and class projects. He got a 3 - an excellent - in Art and Computers.
``Esta muy bien, Alonso,'' (This is good, Alonso), said Carmen, a smile lighting her face. "Que bueno.'' (Very good.)
A quick grin flashed across Alonso's lips.
The day before, Yovanny had also brought home his report cards. His grades, which often languished well below average last year, had improved markedly at Samuel Adams, where he is repeating third grade.
"I was worried about this year,'' admitted Carmen. ``But so far, things are going well. It seems like they are grasping whatever they put in front of him. It seems like they are going to learn in both languages. Maybe, it won't be so hard after all.''
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.