Original URL: http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/328/learning/Bilingual_promise+.shtml

Bilingual promise

As English immersion looms, aides train for a vital new role

By Benjamin Gedan, Boston Globe Correspondent, 11/24/2002

Minutes before a recent recess, Silvia Arata herded a dozen kindergarten students onto a carpet and began reading a ''historia cortita,'' or short story, as they fidgeted and crawled across the floor.

With their teacher absent for the day, Arata, a paraprofessional, was the only authority figure among the bilingual students, who agreed to shout the Spanish alphabet if it meant a quicker route to the playground.

They were soon rewarded, as Arata ordered ''Abrigos!'' sparking a frenzied dash to the closet for coats.

Arata, a teacher's aide at the two-way bilingual education Amigos program in Cambridge, is pursuing a bachelor's degree in early childhood education.

Spurred by a shortage of bilingual education teachers, recent federal grants are helping fund an increasingly popular strategy of turning paraprofessionals such as Arata into certified bilingual education teachers. Long valued for their classroom experience, paraprofessionals are being offered free courses to pursue bachelor's degrees, as well as teaching and bilingual licenses.

In addition, after a referendum dismantled Massachusetts' 31-year-old bilingual education program, education specialists say teacher aides such as Arata are critical to help ease the transition to English immersion for the state's 39,000 students with limited English skills.

''[Paraprofessionals] have the wider perspective of what it takes to get kids to become fluent speakers of English, and to help them academically,'' said Maria de Lourdes B. Serpa, a professor at Lesley University, and a former paraprofessional from Portugal.''We need to do more than say we don't believe in immersion.''

The referendum favoring English immersion takes effect September 2003. Teachers will be able to use only a ''minimal'' amount of a student's native language to teach English.

The ballot initiative helped spotlight the dearth of qualified bilingual education teachers, who must have both a standard teaching certificate and an additional one in bilingual education, as well as pass the state test for teachers. So far this school year, the state has issued 40 waivers to teachers who don't meet those requirements. Last year, the state issued 300 waivers.

At Salem State College, which has received its second $1.3 million federal grant to train bilingual educators, dozens of Latino paraprofessionals are studying to become teachers.

Some, like Arata, a Buenos Aires native, held teaching degrees before moving to the United States. Others have trained through years in classrooms. Nearly all of them, said program coordinator Michelle Pierce, are bilingual and eager to help students adapt to English immersion.

''We are still very much training paraprofessionals to work with culturally and linguistically diverse students,'' she said. ''We can change the name of what's happening, but the students are still bilingual, and many of the issues remain the
same.''

Bilingual teachers and paraprofessionals, advocates say, can help rescue students forced to learn English and academic course work simultaneously.

Latino paraprofessionals, moreover, say their cultural understanding will foster greater communication with students and parents, who are equally anxious about English immersion.

''It's about culture,'' said Arata. In two-way programs, non-English speakers and English speakers learn alongside each other. ''You need to constantly communicate with parents, and some don't speak English.''

Current efforts to expand the ranks of bilingual education teachers will probably do little to address the state's short-term deficit of bilingual educators. For example, participants who work full time and are often raising families take more than five years to earn their certification.

But education specialists hope turning to paraprofessionals will yield long-term results.

Northern Essex Community College, which is sharing a $2 million federal grant with Middlesex Community College, has just extended its year-old paraprofessional training program.

In addition to language skills, a participant's commitment to education, demonstrated by years of working in local public schools, means the investment will probably pay off, said Jennifer Hawrylciw, who wrote the grant for Northern Essex.

''They're going to stick with it, because they are already in a school and know what a teacher's day is like,'' she said.

And even if some participants never earn a bilingual certificate, Hawrylciw said, their language abilities still will prove vital for classrooms with students struggling to learn English. ''The skill of being bilingual is an asset for any profession, and in education, much more,'' she said.

This story ran on page B9 of the Boston Globe on 11/24/2002. Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

 

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