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
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
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
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
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
''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
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
''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.