QUINCY — School officials’ proposal to give some non-English-speaking students intensive English lessons instead of bilingual instruction has drawn little criticism from parents in Quincy.

But the proposal has sparked concern among advocacy groups who see Quincy as a sign of the shifting attitudes toward bilingual education.

“What Quincy does might be followed by other districts,” said Tom Louie,
executive director of the Massachusetts English Plus Coalition, a Boston-based group that promotes bilingual education.

Part of that concern stems from a belief that the state may be more receptive to such changes.

“It would be to nobody’s surprise if some school districts look at what’s

happening at the state Board of Education and say, ‘We can get out of bilingual education,’ ” said Roger Rice, director of a non-profit Boston agency called META, or Multicultural Education Training and Advocacy.

Louie, Rice and other advocates said they’re concerned that with John Silber as the new chairman of the Massachusetts board of education, the state will weaken its commitment to bilingual education.

Silber has emphasized the importance of teaching English to children who aren’t native speakers. With bilingual education, the country risks becoming fragmented and divided over cultural lines, much like the former Yugoslavia and the situation in Canada, he said last year.

Quincy school officials are awaiting the state’s response on their request to waive bilingual-education regulations next fall.

State education officials said such waiver requests are rare and Quincy’s is the only one to come before them this year. But spokesman Alan Safran said that even before Silber’s appointment, Commissioner Robert Antonucci has called for flexibility in enforcing the state’s education rules.

“This commissioner has always had the view that we should be very flexible on the application of regulations,” Safran said.

Under one of these rules, school districts must run bilingual classes whenever they have 20 or more non-English speakers with the same native language.

Quincy has bilingual classes for Cantonese speakers, the largest linguistic minority here. But a state audit last fall found the city failed to meet the requirement for the second largest minority: Vietnamese.

Frustrated by the difficulty in finding qualified Vietnamese-speaking teachers, Quincy school officials decided to try something different.

They’re proposing to form “multilingual classes,” which will give intensive English instruction to children who speak only Vietnamese, Arabic, Spanish or a number of other languages.

Cantonese-speaking children would continue initially to have bilingual classes. But if the experiment with multilingual classes succeeds, school officials said they would eventually eliminate bilingual education.

School officials said their proposal is the best way to cope with the growing diversity of the city’s public schools.

Of the city’s 8,700 students, about 8 percent speak little or no English.
These students instead have 36 different native languages, including Turkish and Thai.

Although Quincy schools are required to offer bilingual classes only for children who speak Cantonese and Vietnamese, the number of Arabic- and Spanish-speaking students is steadily rising, Assistant Superintendent Carol Lee Griffin said.

Last year, there were 52 students with limited English whose native tongue was Spanish, and 35 whose first language was Arabic. Many of the students knew enough English to perform in regular classes, Griffin said.

However, she said, if Quincy continues to follow current state rules, it would in the near future have to run four different bilingual programs: in Cantonese, Vietnamese, Arabic and Spanish.

Bilingual classes, like those for special education, are smaller, and therefore more expensive.

So expanding bilingual programs would come at a high cost, and would still fail to meet the needs of students who speak Tagalog, Portuguese or any of 31 other languages, Griffin said.

“I honestly believe that how this city deals with bilingual education is going to determine its future,” Griffin said.

Special education and bilingual education could put strains on the budget that weaken other programs, and that could mean average English-speaking students leaving the system. “That’s been the story of a lot of big city systems. We don’t want that to happen,” she said.

Besides being less costly, multilingual classes would provide a more equitable education to all non-English speakers, Griffin said. As it is,
students not in a bilingual program are sent to regular classes except for English instruction for up to two hours a day.

With multilingual classes, all non-English speakers would receive intensive lessons in the language for half the day and spend the rest in regular classrooms.

Griffin said she realizes state education officials may be more willing now than in the past to waive bilingual-education requirements. But she said Quincy school officials are less concerned about setting trends than doing right by their students.

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