Bilingual education facing major test

For 18 gap-toothed, fidgety first-graders, the journey to English began yesterday in a Jamaica Plain classroom headed by bilingual teacher Claudia Jaramillo. Calling some of them mi amor – ”my love” – the Louis Agassiz Elementary School teacher mostly spoke Spanish as she set her students to work.

Gradually, Jaramillo will introduce more English. Making her students fluent enough to survive in non-bilingual classes will take at least three years –
and probably more, she said.

But that time frame, under which most bilingual teachers work, has prompted critics to charge that bilingual education classes have become destinations,
instead of vehicles to move students into English classes.

That’s the driving force behind Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz’s attempt to scrap the state’s 30-year-old bilingual education law through a ballot initiative. If he succeeds, as he did in Arizona and California, students like Jaramillo’s will have just one year of English immersion before being placed into all-English classes.

As the school year kicks off, the question of how quickly students can learn English promises to be fiercely debated. Bilingual advocates have begun mobilizing, vowing to defeat Unz’s campaign.

The ballot initiative cleared a hurdle yesterday when state Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly certified it. Unz has until Dec. 5 to gather 57,100 signatures to place the initiative on the November 2002 ballot.

Yesterday, as Boston’s 130 schools officially opened for business, a visit to several bilingual classrooms underscored the complexity of teaching non-English speakers, and why some advocates are seeking a program overhaul.

In Boston, as in many districts, bilingual education varies from school to school – and sometimes classroom to classroom – as educators tailor their program to their own philosophies. Unz’s effort aims to set stricter limits on an area of teaching that has long operated with mixed results.

About 17 percent of Boston’s 63,300 students are enrolled in bilingual education, compared with 4 percent statewide, figures show. The Commonwealth’s bilingual-education law lets students take classes in their native tongues for up to three years, although many students stay longer,
allowed to do so by principals who fear the students will fall behind in all-English settings.

At the Agassiz, a 750-student school, students used to remain in bilingual programs for five or six years, Principal Alfredo Nunez said. That changed several years ago when the school introduced a strong literacy program. Now,
the average stay in bilingual education is four years, he said.

Nunez, a veteran Boston principal, is aware of the three-year cap on bilingual education. But law and research are two different things, he said,
arguing that studies show that it can take up to six years for students to be competent in grade-level English.

”Most students in our school can speak English and converse in English and do it in the school yard with native English-speakers,” said Nunez, who vigorously opposes Unz’s initiative. ”But that’s one thing. Another thing is being able to deal with content in English and compete [academically]
with a person in English. That takes much longer.”

Fourth-grade teacher Maria Jaramillo, Claudia’s sister, spoke mostly Spanish to her class on the school’s first day, and her 21 students wrote essays in the language as well. Most have been in bilingual classes since they started at the Agassiz, and they’ll take MCAS in English this spring.

Maria Jaramillo said she will boost the amount of English as the year progresses. She is confident that by the end of fourth grade, her students will transfer into regular education. ”Even though the law says three years, I’m basing my decisions on their own needs,” she said.

Other educators, while agreeing that each student must be analyzed individually, say that bilingual education must return to what it first was – a transition. At the Donald McKay School in East Boston, Principal Janie Ortega arrived four years ago to find that most of her bilingual students were learning little English, despite staying in bilingual classes for five years.

Moreover, there was no timeline to move students out of bilingual classes,
and some teachers weren’t spreading English throughout other subjects,
Ortega said. As a result, students often came to Grade 6 – the McKay is a K-8 school – with a poor command of English, she said.

Ortega tightened the McKay’s bilingual programs, but disagrees with Unz’s initiative, saying three years is the appropriate limit.

Anand Vaishnav can be reached by e-mail at

Comments are closed.