Lost in translation
By Sean Flynn, Enterprise staff writer
Two classes of kindergartners at the Arnone School in Brockton learn their math,
science and social studies in Spanish one week and in English the next.
As teacher Marisol Sinclair recently held up colored cardboard shapes, the
children excitedly called out "circulo, triangulo,
cuadrado and ovalo." One-half of the class were native English speakers and the
The program, which just started in September, was a hit before it began. Only 21
English-speaking children could be chosen. There were 175 kindergartners left on
the waiting list.
In spite of the popularity of curriculum models like this, such two-way language
programs are in danger if ballot Question 2 passes on Nov. 5, say opponents.
The ballot question asks voters to approve a requirement that all public school
children be taught English by being taught all subjects in English and being
placed in English-only classrooms. Non-English speakers would be put in
sheltered one-year "immersion programs" in which only English is spoken, after
which they would be put in mainstream classes.
The question is on the ballot largely because of the financing and efforts of
Ron Unz, a multimillionaire and former
Republican candidate for governor in California. He believes that only
English-immersion works and successfully
sponsored similar initiatives in California in 1998 and Arizona in 2000.
The question would ban traditional bilingual programs.
Many educators want to keep that option, as well try out other models like the
two-way language program at the
"We were surprised by the volume of the interest," said Raymond Chestnut,
principal of the Arnone School.
"The kids love it," said Melissa Kitchen, the English-speaking teacher. "For
them, it's seamless. The parents must know
their children well, because they are all so excited by the classes."
If Kitchen, Sinclair, Chestnut or the Brockton School Committee continued the
two-way language classes, they
believe they could be sued under the proposed law.
The ballot question says that any teacher, administrator or School Committee
member who refuses to abide by the
law, by ignoring the English immersion mandate, could be held personally liable
for all attorneys' fees, costs and
School employees could not be indemnified by any public or third party if found
guilty. Unz has said the threat of
lawsuits, and the potential ban on teaching, were added to counter opposition
from the educational establishment.
"No doubt the intent is to intimidate educators not to use their professional
judgment, but to be afraid of being sued,"
said James Crawford, author of several books on bilingual education.
"Teachers should focus on teaching kids English, not worrying about being sued
for helping a child learn," said Tim
Duncan, chairman of the Committee for Fairness to Children and Teachers, formed
to oppose the question.
"Teachers are not going to be hauled off in droves to courthouses, as the
opponents would like us to think," countered
Lincoln Tamayo, chairman of English for the Children of Massachusetts, formed to
support passage of Question 2. He
said no teacher or administrator has been sued in California under its law.
Question of choice
Local educators are concerned about the mandate of using only one method to
"The ballot initiative takes away all curriculum choice," said Margaret Adams,
Brockton's department head for
bilingual and ESL services in kindergarten through eighth grade. "School
teachers and administrators would have
their hands tied."
"I honestly believe the bilingual program has been successful over the years,"
said Taunton School Superintendent
Donald L. Cleary. "Ballot Question 2 is a simplistic approach that will hurt
Cleary said students can learn "survival English" in a one-year program like one
Unz envisions, but cannot master the
academic English it takes to succeed in all disciplines.
"I don't think Question 2 meets the needs of all kids," said Octavio Furtado,
director of the English Language Learners
Department in Randolph. "...You need a variety of programs to meet the needs of
The supporters of Question 2 do not accept this.
Tamayo claims that segregating children into native language classrooms, "often
for many years," does not work.
"Many of these students never learn to read English, write English, or even
speak English," he said.
Supporters of programs like the one at the Arnone School disagree.
Jose M. Pinheiro, director of bilingual education for the Brockton school
system, said there are about 250 two-way
language programs throughout the U.S. He said children in the programs
constantly outperform pupils who are taught
in all-English classes.
"The kids, when tested in English, test above the average," said Adams. "In
achievement tests, they test about 50
percent better than students in all English classes. Although it's
counterintuitive, it's true for both language groups."
The state Legislature passed a law this summer that allows school districts to
choose between traditional bilingual
education programs, two-way language programs, English-immersion, or
"Parents and teachers should have those curriculum choices for the program they
want for their children," Adams said.
"One size doesn't fit all."
Ted Coine, owner and operator of Ted's English School on Washington Street in
Stoughton, supports Question 2 and
rejects the argument that local school districts would no longer have choices if
Question 2 passes.
"The school districts can choose, but the parents can't choose," he said. "Too
many kids get sequestered in bilingual
programs, which slow down their ability to learn English."
He also rejects using two languages in classes of mixed native speakers.
"Two-way language programs don't serve the kids who need to learn English," said
Coine. "They give the privileged
kids, the English speakers, the advantage of learning Spanish, but they don't
help the Spanish kids learn English."
People like Ambrizeth Lima of Brockton said she had a different experience. She
came to the U.S. from Portugal at
the age of 15 and enrolled in a bilingual education program to learn English.
"I was able to continue to acquire academic knowledge in subjects such as
geometry, biology and social studies while
I was acquiring English skills," said Lima. "Conversational English can be
acquired quickly, but it takes time to acquire
a good foundation in academic English."
Today, she is a doctoral student at the Harvard University School of Education.
Bilingual education today
In 1971, the Legislature passed a law requiring school districts to provide
specialized programs for native speakers of
foreign languages. Before 1971, 80 percent of Hispanics dropped out of school
because of the language barrier.
In traditional bilingual programs, those most commonly found in larger
communities with large numbers of minorities,
some subjects are taught in the foreign students' native language while they
learn enough academic English to join
Brockton has 1,240 students in its bilingual program. Of that number, 642 are
Cape Verdean speakers, 234 are
Spanish speakers, 206 speak Haitian Creole, and 118 are Portuguese speakers. The
remaining 40 students are from
other countries. They all participate in English-as-a-Second-Language programs.
Brockton students stay an average of 2.7 years in the bilingual program.
Students who have special needs or did not
have proper schooling in their native country may stay longer.
"You have to learn enough English to be mainstreamed," said Pinheiro. "The most
successful students are
Taunton has 218 bilingual students, 142 of them in kindergarten through fourth
grade. There are 34 bilingual
education students in the middle schools and 42 at Taunton High School. A
majority of the students speak
Portuguese, with the next largest group being Spanish speakers.
In Randolph, the school system has 40 to 45 Haitians in traditional bilingual
programs, and about 20 Chinese in a
Randolph School Superintendent Arthur Melia said the school system has students
who speak a total of 47 different
languages, but not enough students are in any one language group to justify
other bilingual programs.
He said there are about 200 students in the English-as-a-Second-Language
Melia did not like the state's former law requiring bilingual programs, which he
called "very expensive and tragically
flawed with kids lingering too long in bilingual programs."
He prefers not to take a stand on Question 2. "The jury is still out on the new
state law," he said.
The impact of the California initiative has been bitterly disputed this election
Unz insists it has helped boost the test scores of 1 million immigrant children.
His critics disagree.
"Figures released in September by the California State Department show that
fewer than 10 percent of children in
immersion have actually learned English in every year this program has been in
place," said Worcester Mayor
Timothy Murray, in an e-mail distributed by opponents of Question 2. "That
leaves over 1 million kids behind."
According to the California DOE, the achievement gap between non-English
speaking kids and English speakers
widened at every level from grade 3 though grade 12 in the years 1998-99, when
mandatory English immersion took
effect in that state, through 2000-01.
Pinheiro said the Brockton school system actually provides an English immersion
curriculum to Cape Verdean
students, with some native language support. All the course material is in
English. However, the students, on average,
need more than one year to learn enough English to enter mainstream classes.
Impact of Question 2
Pinheiro believes the English-immersion method proposed by Question 2 will fail
students, because the school year is
only 8 1/2 months, not long enough to ground students in academic English. If
the ballot question passes, he says
large numbers of unprepared non-English speakers will go into the general
classrooms with negative effects.
Chestnut agrees. He said placing large numbers of non-English speakers in a
classroom will be challenging for the
teacher. For example, he said it will be very very difficult for many of the
Hmong from Laos to learn academic English
after only 8 1/2 months of exposure to the language.
"Before 1972, children could be placed in a corner of the room and forgotten
about," Pinheiro said. "That is not
longer possible. Federal monies are tied to performance standards through annual
Supporters of Question 2 like Tamayo and Coine believe children will learn
English much more quickly if Question 2
Sean Flynn can be reached at email@example.com