Already roiling educators and parents across the state, the battle to reshape bilingual education in Massachusetts reaches the State House tomorrow, as supporters and opponents square off on whether the classes have become a way of life instead of a way to learn English.

Supporters of bilingual education plan to cite wide achievement problems in other parts of the country where bilingual programs have been severely curtailed. Opponents vow to show how the Bay State’s bilingual programs fail to teach English to those who need it the most – and the most quickly.

The hearing before the Legislature’s education committee is a prelude to a fight that will climax in November, when voters face an initiative led by California millionaire Ron Unz to scrap Massachusetts’ 1971 bilingual-education law, the oldest in the nation.

”I’m glad that it’s coming to a head,” said Jenni Lopez, an attorney and leader in the campaign to defeat the Unz initiative. ”It brings out the worst in people. It’s very divisive. … This is about bringing light to this so people can understand this on so many levels.”

A coalition of bilingual-education supporters plans to hold a news conference today and outline statistics from California – where Unz’s initiative passed four years ago – to show that limited- English students have made little progress.

But Unz and his supporters, including some big-city superintendents, are likely to wield statistics of their own.

”We have nonpassing rates of anywhere from 85 to over 90 percent of those limited-English students who still need to pass that MCAS to graduate,” said Lincoln Tamayo, the former Chelsea High School principal who is leading Unz’s campaign in Massachusetts. ”Their performance has been abysmal.”

The Unz initiative is the most radical of four proposals to change Massachusetts’ bilingual education law, which requires districts to offer instruction in students’ native tongues to ease their transition to regular classes.

The Unz proposal gets a hearing because it is headed for the ballot; some Democratic lawmakers are suggesting the other three proposals as less radical methods of addressing the problem.

Unz is pushing to limit bilingual education to an intense, one-year English immersion class, with some exceptions.

Currently, Massachusetts students have a three-year cap on their time in bilingual programs, but schools routinely exceed it.

Other proposals include one by state Representative Antonio F.D. Cabral of New Bedford that would largely keep the programs that are now in place.

State Representative Peter J. Larkin of Pittsfield and state Senator Robert A. Antonioni of Leominster are cosponsoring a bill that would require bilingual-education teachers to demonstrate strong English skills and have the state monitor how long students stay in bilingual programs.

”Right now, there isn’t any accountability,” Larkin said.

Acting Governor Jane Swift has filed a bill similar to Larkin and Antonioni’s that would cap bilingual education at two years instead of three. (The lawmakers’ plan also calls for a grace period on top of the two-year cap.)

But the issues being raised in the debate over bilingual education are less clear-cut than either side cares to admit.

Take, for example, the case of Brighton High School sophomore Chavelly Vidal, who came to the United States in 1999 knowing little English and shy about speaking it. But after nearly four years of bilingual classes, Chavelly rattles off English with confidence, ease, and only slight traces of her Dominican Republic roots.

So why does she still take most of her classes in Spanish?

”It’s comfortable,” said Vidal, who will start regular classes in the next school year. ”And I like to be with my friends. Everyone talks Spanish, and you don’t need to be scared that they’ll say something you can’t understand.”

Cases like Vidal’s infuriate bilingual education opponents, who say it proves such classes have become a social exercise – not an educational one – and blame districts for letting students stay in bilingual programs longer than necessary.

Bilingual supporters hold up Vidal as precisely why the state should preserve the courses. She is like many bilingual students, who pick up vernacular English rapidly but lack ”academic English” to succeed in classes.

”We have students … who could be verbally fluent,” said Carmen O’Connor, director of Brighton High’s bilingual program. ”But that doesn’t mean they can read or write.”

Some Brighton High students have been placed in regular classes after just six months, she said.

Moreover, bilingual backers say that pockets of success prove the wisdom of the state’s current method of giving districts freedom over bilingual programs.

Unlike the state, Framingham school officials tracked how that town’s students did on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test after leaving traditional bilingual education. Eighth-graders performed less well than hoped, but fourth-graders achieved at the same level as native English-speaking peers, said Susan McGilvray-Rivet, director of bilingual education.

The district has revamped its Grade 8 bilingual offerings by buying new materials and writing clearer standards.

”Our program models are based on current research in the field,” McGilvray-Rivet said.

”I can’t imagine someone wanting to go to a doctor who’s using techniques from the 1950s.”

Brighton High, with about 15 percent of students in bilingual education, mirrors the divide. Students brought up arguments that probably will surface tomorrow on Beacon Hill.

”One year is more than enough,” said Carlos Gonzalez, 18. ”Learning English is not that hard if you really think about it and if you can learn and are smart enough.”

”It’s enough for some people,” said Hellen Montanez, 15. ”For some students, it’s difficult.”

Anand Vaishnav can be reached at [email protected]

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