Nobody had ever heard of ”bilingual education” when 6-year-old Wilfredo Laboy walked through the doors of P.S. 24 in Brooklyn in 1957, speaking only Spanish.

When he struggled there, the Puerto Rican native was labeled ”language delayed” and stuck in a basement boiler room with troubled children. A dedicated teacher saved Laboy and inspired him to become an educator – one who was in the vanguard of the bilingual education movement of the early 1970s.

Now, Laboy is the chief of the Lawrence school district, home to the state’s third largest percentage of students whose native language is not English. But Laboy has become so disillusioned with the bilingual programs he once championed that he is putting an end to traditional bilingual education for Lawrence’s youngest students.

Last week, as Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz swept into Massachusetts vowing to destroy the state’s first-in-the-nation bilingual education law and replace it with a transitional year of English ”immersion,” defenders of the Commonwealth’s law braced for a challenge from outside the state.

But even as Unz, and his cash, heat up the debate, faith in the old way of teaching non-English speakers in their native languages seems to be crumbling where it matters most:

On the front lines.

In Bay State districts with the highest percentages of non-English speakers, leading educators – some of them Hispanic – have already switched sides. Well ahead of November 2002, when Unz hopes to have a referendum on the ballot, these educators have begun to move away from the ”transitional bilingual education” approach that has been law for 30 years.

That marks a key change from previous assaults on the state’s bilingual law, when minority leaders and officials in heavily minority school districts closed ranks to beat back the challenge.

Laboy said it has come down to theory vs. reality, and reality is winning. ”What we know from the evidence is that even though there are pockets of success, children in bilingual education fall further and further behind,” Laboy said. ”That painful experience has moved me to say that after 29 years, we have to change it.”

This fall, Laboy is launching a K-2 immersion program that is close to what Unz wants. Holyoke has hosted a California superintendent who is a prominent convert to Unz’s approach, and it will extend a pilot immersion program, begun last year, for another year. The only bilingual education Cambridge now offers its youngest Spanish-speaking students is an innovative two-way immersion program.

Chelsea hasn’t completely forsaken the traditional approach, but Lincoln Tamayo, Chelsea High School’s Cuban-born principal, is so disgusted with it he’s signed on to lead Unz’s ballot push. On Friday, Tamayo resigned as principal of the school, where about two-thirds of the students speak Spanish at home, to work on the campaign full time. He’ll still draw a salary from Boston University, which runs the Chelsea schools under a special agreement.

Tamayo says the current law, which calls for three years of classes conducted in both English and an immigrant’s native tongue, has been a disaster.

”It never made sense to me, that it’s best for a child to learn English by learning all subjects in another language,” said Tamayo, who didn’t speak English when he began school at Tampa’s Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

”I’ve seen what a strong education and an ability to learn English has done for me and my ability to provide for my wife and children, and I want that for every kid who comes here not speaking English.”

The presence of more Hispanics like Tamayo and Laboy in influential posts is an important part of the changed landscape of the state’s bilingual debate, said Charles Glenn, a Boston University education professor who from 1970 to 1991 was head of urban education and civil rights at the state Department of Education. Another change, he said, is that ”because of education reform, it’s no longer possible to hide the lack of achievement” of students whose first language is not English.

Glenn, who argues that bilingual ed decisions should be left to local districts, said the closer scrutiny is overdue.

”I used to ask my colleagues in bilingual education to put in place some way of knowing whether kids were achieving,” he said. ”I encountered resistence to that. They said it would hurt the kids’ self-esteem.”

While arguing that the current approach doesn’t work, Laboy said he doesn’t want to duplicate his boiler room experience. While nearly all the instruction in the immersion classrooms he is introducing will be in English, a Spanish-speaking aide will be in the room to help students who are struggling, he says.

That approach worked well in Holyoke, which had a kindergarten immersion class last year. This coming year, it will have kindergarten and first-grade classes.

”We felt it was a big success. The children progressed a lot and they were all reading by the end of the year,” said Kathleen Harvey, one of the two teachers last year. ”My partner did have a background in Spanish, but it really wasn’t needed, though she did speak to the parents sometimes in Spanish.”

But Laboy’s plan has run into stiff opposition. The superintendent says parents will be allowed to opt out of the new program, but Multicultural Education, Training, and Advocacy Inc., a national pro-bilingual group based in Somerville, has questioned its legality.

Others say the problem in Lawrence isn’t the traditional method, but the way it has – or hasn’t – been implemented.

”There’s no one I’ve met here who had the magnitude of knowledge that would have been necessary for a history or future of progress and success,” said Graciela Trilla, who was assistant principal at Lawrence’s Arlington school last year. Trilla, who is a doctoral candidate at Boston University studying bilingual education, says she was fired because of her views.

Because only about a third of Lawrence students who would benefit from bilingual programs are enrolled in them, Trilla said, for practical purposes immersion is already being tried. And given Lawrence’s low test scores, it isn’t going well.

”The pervasive failure you see in Lawrence is the result of immersion,” Trilla says.

Although similar moves to end bilingual education that Unz bankrolled in California and Arizona were overwhelmingly approved by voters, he is not assured of success here, even with some converts on the front lines. Defenders of Massachusetts’ landmark law have vowed to wage an aggressive battle.

And even some people who acknowledge the current law’s failings worry that Unz’s initiative would be overly prescriptive, grounding programs like Cambridge’s two-way immersion approach (an argument Unz rejects). In the popular ”Amigos” program, native Spanish speakers and native English speakers are mixed in the same classrooms, and both groups learn both languages. A Middle Eastern delegation once visited the 16- year-old Cambridge program seeking ideas on a ”peace school” for Israeli and Arab students.

”My philosophy in this district is that we need a variety of programs to meet the needs of the variety of students that we have, determined on the basis of age, academic background, and what they bring to us,” said Chelsea Superintendent Irene Cornish, who doesn’t share Tamayo’s support for the Unz initiative.

Still, many observers are predicting Unz’s referendum push will succeed here. ”It’ll pass,” said Glenn, the former state education official.

One thing is certain: After three decades of business-as-usual, bilingual programs in the Commonwealth are on everybody’s radar screen.

”This is not about saying, `Miguelito, you’re from Puerto Rico, we can’t celebrate anything from Puerto Rico because we’re monolingual,”’ Laboy said.

”We know diversity is important. But we also have a responsibility to make sure every child has a fair and equitable chance at succeeding every day at the schoolhouse.”

Comments are closed.