Conversion to immersion

Should the education of immigrants be entirely in English? As voters in two states weigh in, the Monitor looks at a Massachusetts city that's just beginning a conversion to immersion.

In Gladys Colon's second-grade class, every visible word – from the posters describing the seasons to the label on the aquarium – is in English. So are nearly all the books on the shelves.

And when students raise their hands to offer sentences with the word "tall," they speak in English as well.

In fact, the only hint that this class of 20 students at Guilmette Elementary School is composed entirely of foreign-born speakers is their accents.

Just a year ago, the Spanish language dominated in many of the kindergarten through second-grade classrooms in the former mill town of Lawrence, Mass. But under a new approach instituted this fall, those children now hear only a sprinkling of their native tongue during the school day. Indeed, foreign languages could soon vanish from most of Lawrence's bilingual classrooms.

The shift to "structured immersion" has been a radical one for this hardscrabble city of 72,000, where the median income is half that of the rest of the state and two-thirds of residents speak a foreign language at home. And it has put Lawrence at the center of a national debate: how best to ensure that children whose native language is not English achieve the fluency that is increasingly essential to future success. The spotlight on the school district has intensified this fall because voters in Massachusetts, as well as in Colorado, will decide today on a ballot initiative to require that all schools give nonnative English speakers a year of intensive English instruction followed by a quick transition to mainstream classrooms.

Both ballot initiatives are spearheaded by Ron Unz, the California businessman who has already pushed through similar measures in his home state and in Arizona.

Massachusetts was the first state to adopt a bilingual-education law, three decades ago. Non-English speakers have been taught mostly in their native languages for up to three years. The assumption is that learning in a familiar language makes it easier to pick up subjects such as math and science.

But supporters of the initiatives under consideration today contend that transitional bilingual education, as the existing practice is known, has failed. It has churned out a generation of students, they charge, who can neither speak English well nor absorb the subject material needed to graduate from high school.

In Lawrence, where about 14 percent of the public schools' 12,000 students currently qualify for bilingual courses and where test scores on state achievement exams rank near the bottom, there's been relatively little dispute about the need for a more successful approach to teaching every child English. "We have a moral and ethical responsibility to make children proficient in the language of this country," says Wilfredo Laboy, Lawrence's school superintendent.

After taking the job in 2000, Mr. Laboy created a task force to review the district's bilingual program. The task force found that the amount of English students encountered in Lawrence varied by school and even by classroom.

In response, the district instituted structured immersion last year as a pilot program for kindergarten through second grade, and expanded it this fall.

Some foreign language allowed

With their parents' permission, about half of bilingual students were placed in structured-immersion classrooms, where 80 to 90 percent of instruction is supposed to be conducted in English.

The approach doesn't entirely rule out using another language. Teachers instruct in Spanish in whatever subject they choose during a single 45-minute block. Otherwise, they are directed to limit the use of Spanish to clarifying concepts. That doesn't mean translating lessons, though.

Every teacher ata given grade level is reading from the same English script during a 90-minute reading block each morning.

In Fred Confalone's first-grade class, students sit neatly in rows on a brightly colored rug covered with numbers and letters. Mr. Confalone says "apple" and points to the letter A, and the class repeats the word in unison. They go off-script momentarily to repeat a poem written by Confalone and move their hands in the shape of a pumpkin: "Make your pumpkin nice and round with a smile, not a frown."

In Ms. Colon's second-grade class, students practice sounding out words posted on the "word wall." They turn to each other to answer questions in English. Teachers' aides help students who seem inattentive or confused.

Students can answer questions in Spanish but are encouraged to use English. "We want all the kids to feel comfortable in this school," says Ada Ramos, Guilmette's lead bilingual teacher. Those who need additional help can get one-to-one practice in a small room next door.

An optional approach

Lawrence doesn't require that all children in need of bilingual aid follow this route. Parents may still opt to place children in traditional transitional classrooms. Those students get about 10 percent more native-language instruction than the immersion children.

Bilingual-education students who enter the system beyond second grade are taught more in Spanish, on the assumption that adjusting to instruction in a foreign tongue can be more difficult for older students. A third-grade classroom, for example, features more Spanish-language books. And outside of one fifth-grade classroom, essays written in English and Spanish hang on the wall.

Initially, immersion wasn't welcomed by everyone in Lawrence, where 80 percent of students are Hispanic. Some parents and school-committee members expressed fears that children would grow up illiterate in the language of their parents.

A popular choice with immigrants

Given an informed choice about their options, Laboy says, most parents opt to place their children in the structured immersion program.

Take Fernando Lara, who came to Lawrence with his two sons from the Dominican Republic 2-1/2 years ago. Luis is enrolled in a first-grade immersion class at Guilmette, while Remis is in a bilingual sixth-grade class there.

Mr. Lara says he learned firsthand the value of knowing English, having twice been passed over for promotion at his job at a printing company because of his broken English. He proudly watches his sons talk in English at home.

"They're progressing as I wish I could have been able to do myself," Lara says through an interpreter.

Supporters of Massachusetts' Question 2 point to Lawrence's program as a model for success and say the proposition is needed to prod larger districts into making similar changes.

"That is the best way to get children proficient in English and successful in English-language classes," says Lincoln Tamayo, cochair of the campaign for Question 2 and a former high school principal in Chelsea, Mass. "It makes far more sense than segregating children and giving them native-language instruction for years on end before they're finally mainstreamed."

That viewpoint seems to have solid support in the state. A Boston Herald poll of 421 likely voters conducted Oct. 25-27 found 63 percent supporting Question 2 and 28 percent opposing it, while 9 percent were undecided.

But the legislation that Massachusetts lawmakers approved earlier this year allows school districts to pick their own approach to bilingual education, provided the students are mainstreamed within two to three years.

That legislation, Lawrence educators say, is preferable to the current proposition. If passed, they say, it would actually undermine their changes by eliminating the daily, 45-minute native-language block and the ability to support children as they move into regular classrooms. "It is sink or swim," says Alberto Molina, principal of the Guilmette School.

Mr. Molina says the one-year time frame is unrealistic. Students may become conversant in English but not proficient enough to learn subject matters well. Currently, Lawrence officials say their goal is to mainstream bilingual students within two years.

School officials say such flexibility is vital, particularly in districts with large numbers of immigrant students who arrive nearly every day with vastly varied levels of prior education.

Both sides in the bilingual debate point to California's experience to predict what will happen in Massachusetts.

Proponents say bilingual students' test scores improved after California voters approved the switch. Opponents, however, argue the gap separating them from native speakers has actually widened.

Lawrence officials hope to expand structured immersion one grade at a time. Laboy knows there are strong differences of opinion on the matter, but he's clear about the goal: "We must be responsible [for ensuring that] children are proficient in English."

Two immigrant teachers – two views

As children, both Rosalie Porter and Ambrizeth Lima arrived in the US speaking no English. That experience led them into careers as teachers of English as a Second Language (ESL). They spoke with the Monitor recently about their positions in the debate over bilingual education.

Rosalie Porter

"I came to America at the age of 6. Neither I nor anyone in my family spoke a word of English. When I started school in Newark, N.J., there were no programs or special help. My teacher did not know my native language, which was Italian – I just had to pick it up. It was a painful experience, sitting in a classroom where you don't understand a word that's being said.

I was a bilingual teacher for five years in Springfield, Mass. That experience made me understand what was wrong with the law. I came in a true believer, but after a year or two of experience I realized I was holding the children back.

[I was] teaching them everything in Spanish with an hour or two of English lessons. In five or six years, they still had very limited English when they were going on to junior high school. They were not making the transition as expected.

The experiment in bilingual education has turned out to be faulty. If you want children to learn English you teach them in English. You don't teach them in Spanish for three or five years. Many are already at a disadvantage. They come from families of poverty, and if you add onto that the language barrier, you are not helping these kids.

What you need to do is remove the language barrier to an equal education and remove it as quickly as possible."

Ambrizeth Lima

"I came from the Cape Verde islands at the age of 15 and enrolled in school in New Bedford, Mass. I was enrolled in a Cape Verdean bilingual program. I remember taking the bus to school and being teased and harassed by students because I didn't speak English, or being given less work because they equated English with my intelligence.

But at the same time, I [had] an anchor with a teacher who spoke my language. I was fortunate to actually have teachers who spoke my language and who sort of guided me in adapting and integrating into this new society. That was my oasis in this big desert.

It was [an experience of] feeling totally different and being ignored because I couldn't speak English. This is probably what will happen to a lot of these kids, feeling totally dumb because the teacher doesn't have time. I don't know how they envision this to work, kids just soaking up English.

I was a bilingual teacher for nine years in three schools in Dorchester, Roxbury, and South Boston. I chose [to do this] because of my own experience as a bilingual student.

[The] transitional [approach] is best. It gradually guides the student toward being mainstreamed. It's not like being thrown out there and you sink or swim. Immersion leads to students having their tongue removed. You can't speak. All you do is take it in. Meanwhile, what happens to the student? [Your] intelligence is not measured by how much English you know. You can acquire English outside the classroom."

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