Tuesday, November 18, 2008

English period: Some educators say pushing immersion before bilingual classes may do more harm than good

By Lisa Kocian
Globe Staff / September 25, 2008

Do you remember the indecipherable teacher's voice from old Charlie Brown cartoons? That's what second grade sounds like to 7-year-old Marian Lora.

n this country for all of a few weeks, she understands almost no English. But during her first 30 days of school in Framingham, that's all she will be hearing from teachers, under the requirements of a state law that seeks to minimize bilingual education in favor of immersing children quickly into the English language.

That's one tough month for students and teachers alike, says Margaret Doyle, principal of the Brophy School, where Marian has just enrolled.

"Following the law is just making it more difficult for those students in terms of time lost from the curriculum," said Doyle.

During the month of English-only instruction, there are "many more trips to the bathroom, nurse's office. We've had kids crying, headaches, tummy aches," Doyle said.

Framingham has more bilingual programs than any school district in the state, but Marian must wait a month to get into one under the six-year-old law. To be referred to a bilingual class, students younger than 10 must first spend 30 days in an English-only classroom. After that, parents or guardians can be asked to sign a waiver that would allow the children to go into bilingual classes if they are having problems with English-only instruction.

In a bilingual classroom, a child can be taught in their native tongue alongside English.

The waivers were meant to be the exception, but at Brophy they have become the rule. Doyle said parents pretty much always sign them, allowing the school to switch back to bilingual education, the system in place statewide for 31 years before the law changed.

But in order to get there, students have to first trudge through those 30 days of English-only instruction. And that's where Marian Lora is now.

In a recent math class, she joined seven classmates in playing "Go Fish." One child rubbed her temples, as the English instructions eluded her. At one point the teacher, Luz Vallejo, apparently exasperated, asked them to put down their cards and "listen," as she pointed to her ear. In English, again, she explained the card game - holding up fingers and making gestures to try to get the point across.

"It doesn't make any sense," said Tony Marin, a bilingual special-education teacher at Brophy. "The kid is not even learning anything."

Just sitting in school is not an education, according to Maria de Lourdes B. Serpa, a professor of education and special education at Lesley University and a former bilingual teacher.

"To speak English, in my opinion, is not enough," said Serpa. "Students need to go to school and be educated. To be educated, they need to understand their teacher."

Serpa said the deficiencies of immersion-only programs show up in the rising dropout rates and special-education referrals for English-language learners. "This law is really not working for most immigrant students," she said.

There are other alternatives. At Brophy, a child could be put into a mainstream class, or into a "sheltered English" classroom, which is taught mostly in English by bilingual teachers who can explain concepts in Spanish or Portuguese when needed. Additionally, some other Framingham elementary schools offer English as a second language, where students are taught in English by specially trained teachers. But Brophy educators say most children who are new to English do better in the long run if they start off in bilingual classes, where they are taught in their native language as well, and ease into English.

Jim Boulet Jr., executive director of English First, a Virginia-based lobbying group that opposes bilingual education, is on the other side of the debate.

"When you're serious about teaching a language, you use immersion," he said. "Anyone will tell you the best time to learn a second language is when you are young."

Children can practice their native language at home, but at school, anything other than English only hurts them, he said.

"Bilingual education was never really about teaching English. It was about minority language and cultural preservation. When a child is denied the right to learn English, you're guaranteeing he's going to be underemployed for the rest of his life," Boulet said.

Ron Unz, a California software engineer who was the architect of the laws that targeted bilingual education in his home state, Massachusetts, and elsewhere, said the law has been a success in California, with rising test scores among immigrants. He said he hasn't followed the results in Massachusetts.

"When children don't know math when they go to school, they are taught math," said Unz. "People think children who don't know English should be taught English."

According to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, bilingual education has mostly ended in Massachusetts, with Framingham a notable exception.

"We are beginning to see some progress in English language acquisition statewide," said J.C. Considine, a department spokesman, by e-mail. "We can't necessarily say this is a result of the new law. No Child Left Behind has also focused schools, districts, and the state . . . more on all groups of students and the progress they are making."

The challenge coming up, he said, is that there are more and more children statewide who are not fluent in English at a time when funding has been cut for teacher training. There is already a shortage of teachers trained to teach English as a second language or a sheltered English class, he said.

The state gauges English language proficiency and progress toward that goal in every school district, explained Considine, through a system called "Annual Measurable Achievement Objectives. The Framingham district, which aggressively offers a bilingual option to families, exceeded its targets for both progress and attainment last year.

Brophy, which has students in kindergarten through fifth grade, is also unusual in that it houses the Spanish language bilingual program for the district. So it naturally has higher numbers of non-native English speakers. More than half of the students at the school speak a first language that is not English.

Framingham parents who want their child to hear English only from the first day usually choose one of the other elementary schools, according to Doyle.

Like other newcomers, Marian Lora's path will likely take her to a bilingual classroom and then a sheltered classroom for two or three years before she enters a standard classroom.

Recently there has been an annual average of about 35 to 40 newcomers, like Marian, with no English skills when they arrive, said Doyle. The numbers are higher this school year, but an exact count is not yet available.

Marian is oblivious to all the policies and numbers that affect her. With an easy smile and laugh, she said through an interpreter that school is fun and she is happy living here with her grandmother and aunt.

Dressed in a pink zip-up hoodie, small gold hoop earrings, and jeans decorated with embroidered flowers, Marian said she likes the cafeteria food, adores riding the school bus, and enjoys math class. She also said she is not homesick for the Dominican Republic, but hopes to return to her native Santo Domingo someday as a doctor so she can "take care of people."

Although she has never seen snow, she's not interested and much prefers the warmth.

Marian said she is eager to learn English but right now it's "a little bit funny" to her.

"It's kind of funny because I don't understand."

Lisa Kocian can be reached at

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