First day smooth as schools tackle bilingual ed issue

Boston Public Schools opened for roughly 62,400 students yesterday as the School Committee received its first look at a proposed policy for bilingual education in the city.

The opening day of the 2002-2003 school year saw 36,000 students transported in 623 buses along 4,000 routes to elementary, middle and high schools.

“We are calling this a very smooth first day,” said Jonathan Palumbo, spokesman for Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant. The superintendent delivered a much-anticipated proposal for a revised system for teaching “English language learners” in the wake of the School Committee’s decision to abandon the “Lau Plan,” a voluntary consent decree that had governed bilingual education policy in Boston for 25 years. The parents of bilingual students and bilingual advocates have slammed the committee, claiming the school department had a history of failing to meet the terms of the Lau Plan even under court supervision.

A Superior Court judge agreed with the parents that the city had failed to meet the reporting requirements of the plan, but the ruling also said the committee could vote to abandon the plan.

Under the revised program, families will be able to choose from schools that offer four options for bilingual education: traditional transitional bilingual education, two-way bilingual, English as a second language and native language literacy.

Payzant told committee members the new plan will allow the district to better serve students and their families.

“This policy seeks to address the challenge facing English language learners in all settings . . . by focusing on the students’ academic achievement. Accountability for the academic achievement of English language learners rests with the district, and more specifically, with principals, headmasters and teachers.”

The new policy is just one of a number of changes taking place in bilingual education across the state. Last month, lawmakers approved an overhaul of the state’s 30-year-old bilingual education law, which mandated only that districts offer the much-criticized transitional bilingual education method.

Now, school systems are required to offer at least two programs and make sure students transition into English-language instruction within two years.

But a pending referendum question that would outlaw bilingual education and replace it with a California-style “one-year immersion” program has enjoyed wide support in recent polls.

So far, Payzant has emerged as the most visible opponent of proposal, backed by Californian Ron Unz, and he has lobbied against it at the State House and slammed the proposal again Tuesday.

“The Unz initiative says one-size-fits-all,” Payzant said as he and Mayor Thomas M. Menino outlined initiatives for the new school year. “We don’t believe it. There are many different approaches to use and we’re going to offer them.”



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