LAWRENCE – In Room rr 105 of the Gerard A. Guilmette School yesterday, Angel Ruiz, a tousle-headed 6-year-old newly arrived from the Dominican Republic, recited his numbers. He skipped 14, stumbled over 16, and with gentle prompting in English from teacher Fred Confalone, made it to 20.
A typical scene for day one of Grade 1, but Angel’s halting, slightly accented counting in English – instead of in Spanish – is the result of a new district policy that has rearranged the sights, sounds, and feel of bilingual education in this heavily Latino school system. The new direction is more English and less of a student’s native tongue. “This is the way to go,” said Confalone, a bilingual teacher for 18 years. “I see results. Children are excited to learn English. They’re anxious to speak it and read it and write it. I see a love of learning to read in English – as long as it’s done in a nurturing, safe, risk-taking environment where they know they’re not going to be teased.”
Lawrence’s new policy of “structured immersion” in grades K-2 is being praised and picked apart by advocates on both sides of the emotionally charged debate over how best to educate children who don’t speak English. As the school year kicks off, and with a November ballot initiative to replace bilingual classes with English immersion inching closer, Massachusetts school districts are grappling with newfound pressure to produce better results for bilingual students – or mark this school year the last for bilingual education as it exists.
“The goal of all good bilingual education programs is to develop good English,” said Lawrence Superintendent of Schools Wilfredo T. Laboy. “The question is, did we get them there?”
One of the hurdles to answering that question statewide is a lack of data to prove which of the many variations of bilingual programs works best. MCAS sheds little light because bilingual education students are exempt from the English portion if they’ve been here less than three years. The state Department of Education does not measure whether a link exists between the time spent in bilingual education and English proficiency. Such information is left to individual school districts, with only a handful, such as Framingham and Lawrence, gauging the progress of limited-English students after they exit bilingual education.
That data void has let both sides use the same statistics to make opposite points: In California – the first state in the nation where the immersion initiative passed – bilingual opponents declared victory in rising test scores on the state’s test. But proponents said the gap between limited-English students and regular-education students widened. The measure also passed in Arizona, but too recently for concrete testing data. Both efforts – as the one in Massachusetts – were spearheaded by Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz.
The Bay State, in 1971, was the first in the nation to implement bilingual education to ease immigrant students into English by teaching subjects in their native tongues for up to three years. But over the years the definition of bilingual education has broadened to encompass such popular efforts as two-way programs in which native English speakers and native Spanish speakers learn both languages simultaneously.
The lack of state oversight and penchant for local control has meant increasing inconsistency statewide. It led to Unz’s ballot challenge and to recent new law taking effect this fall requiring annual testing of the Commonwealth’s 40,000 bilingual students and submission of bilingual education plans to the state. Legislators hope it will help defeat the ballot challenge.
Even in Lawrence, which began revamping its bilingual classes before Unz arrived, change ignited opposition. Laboy said that disheartening test scores fueled his creation of a task force to examine bilingual education, but the panel was accused of wanting to wipe out native-language teaching and stifling children’s cultural backgrounds. Some even threatened a legal challenge, and advocates still worry that the city isn’t adequately informing parents of bilingual education options.
Still, Lawrence now offers “structured immersion” in grades K-2 after a pilot program last year resulted in 44 percent of students moving to mainstream English classes. Previous data found that students who chose mainstream classes over bilingual courses often did better than their peers who stayed in bilingual education, according to a report by the Lawrence school district.
For K-2, structured immersion means that most of the lessons are taught in English, with native languages used to clarify concepts. In Confalone’s classroom all signs but one are in English, as are nearly all books. But students like Angel also get a daily 45-minute literacy block in which everything is taught in their native language – and in Lawrence, with Latinos making up 80 percent of the city’s 13,000 students, the language is usually Spanish.
In grades 3-12, Lawrence provides “accelerated academic English,” which features more of the child’s native tongue and a concentration on quick vocabulary growth in English.
Even with data-driven findings, Lawrence’s policies still stir some discontent.
Lincoln Tamayo, chairman of Unz’s Massachusetts campaign, generally praises Laboy’s efforts, but added he would prefer eliminating the daily block of native-language time until students learn English fluently. Unz’s initiative would force Lawrence to give up that dose of native-language time and expand complete immersion to all grades.
At the same time, pro-bilingual activists voice a wait-and-see attitude about Lawrence. “I like the idea, but on a trial basis,” said Isabel Melendez, a former mayoral candidate in Lawrence. “If it works better, then we continue.”
But as with most of the fiery debate about bilingual education, and driven by the desire to find a solution, Lawrence’s new approach has Laboy and his staff vowing to keep it, no matter what.
“We’ll go to court,” Guilmette Principal Alberto Molina said. “If it’s something that helps kids learn better, what’s wrong with that?”
SIDEBAR: BILINGUAL PROGRAMS
A look at different bilingual education programs in Massachusetts public schools:
* Transitional bilingual education: Practiced in most school systems. Based on the state’s 1971 bilingual education law, “TBE” lets students take most classes in their native tongue for up to three years. They start with most classroom lessons in their native language and gradually get more English as they progress. The law caps time in these classes at three years, though many stay longer.
* Two-way bilingual education: These programs combine native Spanish speakers and native English speakers who are just learning to read and write. They learn both languages at the same time, becoming truly “bilingual.” Popular two-way programs exist in Boston, Cambridge, Framingham, and Somerville.
* Immersion: These classes give students almost nothing but English, with native languages being spoken for token uses, such as clarification.
* Structured immersion: These classes resemble immersion but allow 10-20 percent of instruction in their spoken language, for clarification, translation, or assistance. Some structured immersion classes also have daily blocks of time spent in the children’s native tongue.