Students and teachers struggle to meet English immersion goals
Boston Globe
October 2, 2005

Rashad Masoud and his sixth-grade classmates at the William McKinley School in Revere are learning about decimals. All eyes are focused on a white board as math teacher Kathy Kerrins uses a picture of a square with 100 boxes to illustrate the problem, .08 x .02 = ?

Masoud looks lost. It’s not the math, but the words that are confusing him. The 11-year-old, a Palestinian who moved to the United States a month ago, is still learning how to count to 100 in English.

As Kerrins colors 16 of the 100 boxes to illustrate the solution for the class, aide Jessica Consoli discreetly stands by Masoud’s desk and draws a diagram with 100 boxes to quietly help him through a different exercise. The youngster, who has grown up speaking Arabic, haltingly counts in English as Consoli points to each box. He makes it to 38.

By June, Masoud is supposed to be nearly fluent in English, according to a voter-approved law known as Question 2.

Two years after Massachusetts public schools launched the required English immersion classes for thousands of immigrant children, many students and schools are struggling to meet the one-year time limit specified by the law, according to a recent report from the state Department of Education.

The law was designed to fundamentally alter the way non-English speaking children were taught. In the past, they were placed in bilingual education classes, where students were taught separately in their native tongue and gradually eased into mainstream classes. Critics said students often languished for several years under that method. The new approach directs schools to immerse youngsters in intensive English instruction for one year and then move them to regular classes.

However, most immigrant students in Boston’s northern suburbs — and across the state — have needed more than a year, and often more than two years, before they are ready to join regular classes, the state’s survey found. For instance, just 9 percent of fifth- and sixth-graders statewide qualified for mainstream classes this past spring after one year of immersion, the report showed. In Revere that figure was 8 percent.

‘‘Keeping a child, as sometimes happened, for years and years in separate [bilingual] classrooms was not a good thing. But the expectation that everything can happen in a year does not make sense,’’ said Joan Connolly, superintendent of Malden public schools, where at least 44 languages are spoken. Most of the district’s limited-English students have needed more than a year to join mainstream classes, according to the state’s data.

There are at least 70 languages other than English spoken in schools north of Boston, including 35 in Chelsea, 34 in Everett, and 30 in Salem. They range from Spanish, Portuguese, and Khmer, to Ga (an African language), Haitian Creole, and Dzongkha (a language native to Bhutan, a country in southern Asia).

For many schools, English immersion has been a work in progress. Several administrators said they have modified their programs as their teachers learn what works, and what doesn’t.

Some school districts, such as Lynn, use ‘‘sheltered’’ English immersion classes, in which children spend most or all of the day in classes with other children whose primary language is not English. However, teachers address these students almost entirely in English, as required by the new law.

In other districts, such as Revere, students join mainstream classes immediately for almost the entire day, but do have some intensive periods with an English coach. In the mainstream classes, educators team up, with one teaching a subject, such as math, and the other explaining the lesson, one-on-one, to students who don’t speak English. The primary teacher often uses pictures and diagrams to help convey the lesson to the entire class, so limited-English students in the room will have a better chance of understanding. Still, the English coach sometimes must teach a less-advanced concept to newcomers, as Consoli did with Masoud to help him learn to count to 100.

With 38 different languages spoken by students in Revere’s school district — from Albanian to Vietnamese — teachers often have been able to tap the expertise of bilingual students to help a limited-English student. In Masoud’s case, Kerrins and Consoli have had a potent ally: an 11-year-old named Ahmed Salem. The youngster moved from Egypt six years ago and now is fluent in both English and Arabic, which he still speaks at home. Salem and Masoud speak different dialects of Arabic — Masoud’s has more Hebrew influence — but the two are able to understand each other.

‘‘I am with him all the time, in reading, English and social studies,’’ said Salem, who vividly remembers starting first grade, new to this country and unable to understand a word of English.

‘‘They put me next to him and I didn’t mind,’’ Salem said. ‘‘I didn’t want him to be lonely.’’

Consoli, who speaks seven languages, was a bilingual education teacher and had considerable experience working with students who could not speak English before the new law went into effect. She is, however, in the minority. Teaching the teachers, it turns out,has been one of the biggest challenges of the English immersion law, administrators said.

‘‘The state wants us to do 45 hours of training for each teacher in the district, to give them skills to be able to include English language learners in their classroom, and that’s an enormous task,’’ said Revere’s superintendent, Paul Dakin.

Coming up with the funds to train teachers — and to pay for substitutes while teachers are being taught — has also been a struggle in tight financial times.

‘‘Our district has been forced to cut, on average, $4 million, per year, over each of the past five years,’’ said Richard Whaley, supervisor of Haverhill’s English Language Learners program.

Whaley and other administrators said they have cobbled together some federal funds for seminars and have taken advantage of free training sessions from the state Department of Education. But most said they still have teachers who have limited-English students in their classes, but have not received the training they need to properly teach these students. In Lynn, for example, just 500 of the district’s 1,500 teachers have gone through the program, which includes training on how to use maps, diagrams, and pictures to teach in a regular classroom that includes students whose primary language is not English.

‘‘We have a lot of work to do,’’ said Paula Sheppard, director of Lynn’s language support program. ‘‘We are trying to do this in a five-year period.’’

Despite the considerable challenges, several school administrators said students, especially those in younger grades, appear to be picking up English faster than they did under the former bilingual education system.

‘‘Now that they are getting English more in school, I see them socializing more with classmates,’’ said Laurie Goldenberg, who coordinates Everett’s English Language Learners program.

Still, the state survey shows most limited-English speakers in Everett’s system needed more than a year before they were ready to move into regular classes.

Schools are allowed to maintain some bilingual programs under provisions of Question 2. Administrators said most of those programs are at the high school level, where older students often have a tougher time picking up English and also face additional pressures to pass MCAS exams to graduate.

But the bottom line — whether students are learning English faster — still appears to be an open question.

‘‘The lack of unbiased studies makes it hard to measure,’’ said Thomas Kingston, superintendent of Chelsea’s public schools, where the vast majority of non-English speaking students have needed more than a year to join mainstream classes, according to the state report.

‘‘It’s such a complicated issue, you are not going to be able to make a judgment the third year in,’’  Kingston said. ‘‘It will take a decade.’’
© Copyright 2005 Globe Newspaper Company.