Advocacy group casts doubt on English immersion plan

LAWRENCE — An education rights organization has asked Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll to look into the school district’s plans for an English-immersion program for youngsters learning English as a second language.

Roger L. Rice, co-director of Multicultural Education, Training & Advocacy, wrote a letter to Dr. Driscoll this month, saying he read in The Eagle-Tribune that the district plans to implement an immersion program for non-native English-speaking students in kindergarten through second grade.

In the letter, Mr. Rice told the commissioner that if the news reports are accurate, the immersion program would be illegal under state law.

Under the law, students who don’t speak English must be offered lessons in both their native language and English. Students are entitled to stay in bilingual classes for up to three years or until the child is ready to exit into the regular program.

“I have no personal knowledge of the accuracy of these news reports. Nonetheless, as I think we both would agree, it would be flat out illegal under (state law) for Lawrence to assign Hispanic LEP (limited English proficient) students in grades one and two to an English immersion program,” Mr. Rice’s letter read.

Reached by phone, Mr. Rice declined to comment on his letter to Dr. Driscoll. However, he was in Lawrence this weekend meeting with parents about the district’s bilingual-education plan .

City School Superintendent Wilfredo T. Laboy’s blueprint — which he plans to implement next month — calls for students in kindergarten through second grade to be placed in English-immersion classes, with extra support in their native language from qualified language specialists. Older English-learners will be placed in transitional programs for three years or fewer after which they will be offered English-as-a-second-language support in mainstream classes.

Mr. Laboy has said that studies have shown teaching young students in an immersion setting with native language support helps them to learn English more quickly and succeed academically.

He has also proposed eight “bilingual centers” in schools throughout the city to streamline bilingual services and concentrate them in specific schools.

Jose Balbuena, a longtime local advocate for bilingual education, told School Committee members this month he is collecting signatures for a letter to Multicultural Education Training & Advocacy to solicit help for filing a lawsuit against the district.

The group is a national organization that promotes education rights of Hispanics and other linguistic minorities.

For about 80 percent of students in the Lawrence schools, English is not their native tongue. About 26 percent of students are considered to have “limited English proficiency.”



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