School officials defend need for bilingual education
By Joanna Massey, Boston Globe Staff Correspondent, 10/24/2002
Each year as many as 1,500 students speaking 26 different languages pass
through Brockton's bilingual education program. School officials say as many as
40 percent of the city's 17,000 students speak a language other than English in
The state ballot Question 2 that would replace bilingual education with English
immersion, is perceived in the city not just as a philosophical insult, but as a
''Brockton has been a very welcoming place for immigrants and we have done very
well preparing them for college and the workplace,'' said Margaret Adams, the
school district's department head for K-8 bilingual education. ''We want to
continue that tradition, and we're very concerned that Question 2 will take away
our ability to determine the needs of our students and what kind of programs we
place them into.''
City school officials have organized a rally next week to protest Question 2,
which is aimed at getting non-English speakers into regular classrooms in one
year. The measure, backed by Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz, already has
been adopted in California and Arizona. In Massachusetts, it would end a
30-year-old bilingual education policy that allows students to be taught in
their native tongue while gradually being introduced to English.
In districts with diverse populations like Brockton, the Unz initiative would be
''devastating,'' school and city officials say. They predict that dropout rates
and discipline problems among bilingual students would soar, and that the
gap for limited English proficiency students will grow.
''The way to make bilingual education work is to monitor it the way we do in
Brockton, and to have a number of options since no two students learn at the
same pace,'' said Brockton Mayor John Yunits Jr. He said he fears approval of
Question 2 would result in ''a huge, unfunded mandate for a lot of
communities.'' He also said he believes it is unfair to penalize teachers if
students have not learned English in the one-year program - a component of the
''Unless you're going to penalize parents too, that's a real flaw,'' he said.
On average, students in Brockton stay in bilingual courses for 2.7 years,
according to Adams. The city has bilingual programs in Spanish, Cape Verdean
Creole, Haitian Creole, and Portuguese, as well a general English as a Second
Language (ESL) program for many other languages. Adams said a language
proficiency team of teachers and administrators determines when each child is
ready to be mainstreamed. Sometimes it occurs gradually, with a student taking
some subjects in English and some in their native language, she said.
''But now in one magic school year, they're supposed to be fluent in English
according to proponents (of Question 2),'' Adams said. ''They say that students
are languishing forever in bilingual programs and it's just not true. We're
human beings; each one is a wonder and a puzzle in and of themselves, and each
has their own strengths and weaknesses. To say there's one approach to reach all
of them is ludicrous.''
While supporters of Question 2 say children should be taught English from the
start, opponents argue that putting other subjects on hold to learn English will
make students fall behind. Adams said Brockton sees a significant number of
students new to the country who are trying to read and write in English, but
have never learned to read or write in their native language.
Moises Rodrigues, an officer and former president of the Cape Verdean
Association of Brockton, said it is ''ridiculous'' to expect students to learn
English in one year. He said he believes many voters fail to realize what a
small number of students are in bilingual programs - statewide, about 4.6
''To me, this is a harmful way of dealing with our kids,'' Rodrigues said.
''We're already having such a hard time keeping kids in school and this is one
more excuse for them to not stay.''
Joseph O'Sullivan, president of the Brockton Educators Association, said about
80 percent of Brockton High School graduates attend a two- or four-year college.
With such a large immigrant population, that figure - along with improving MCAS
scores - indicates the bilingual program is working, he said.
''I try to put myself in their shoes,'' O'Sullivan said. ''How would you or I
like to go to Japan and in three years take a test in Japanese that would
determine the rest of our lives? Because that's what these kids are facing.''
The Question 2 protest rally is scheduled for Wednesday at 5:30 p.m., on the
steps of City Hall. Sponsored by the Brockton Educators Association and the ''Unz-No
English-Yes'' Brockton Community Committee, the rally will feature speakers from
Brockton and surrounding communities.
Joanna Massey can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
This story ran on page 1 of the Globe South section on 10/24/2002. © Copyright
2002 Globe Newspaper Company.