Last Christmas, the only English word Mikhail Lasota knew was “hello.”

This year, the Russian immigrant speaks like any American teen-ager, and jokes easily as he leaves his bilingual classes at the English High School. But when he writes, his English doesn’t make any sense, and he often lapses into Russian.

At 17, Lasota is among thousands of children nationwide pinned down in the battle over how the country should teach youngsters born to a foreign language.

Some say bilingual education is bringing Mikhail into the mainstream. Others contend it’s keeping him from joining it.

Since Boston University President John Silber was named Weld’s education czar last month, the debate over bilingual education has reignited.

Silber fears bilingual education could turn the country into another “Yugoslavia,” where different cultures never find common ground and dissolve into warring factions.

And he calls bilingual classes “miserable,” with oversized classes and underqualified teachers.

“Why should we accept separate and unequal education?” Silber demanded.

As the man who will forge state policy, Silber wants to cut bilingual education from a flexible three years and up into a stiff one-year program, forcing children to learn English quickly and then join mainstream classes.

Other top Weld administration officials agree, and the stage has been set for the first change in 25 years.

The debate also rages in Washington where Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole has scorned bilingual education. Dole, the Republican presidential front-runner, argues that English should be made the country’s official language.

Two bills in Congress call for scaling back the $ 200 million a year the federal government now spends on bilingual education.

But bilingual-education supporters say Silber’s plan is far too harsh. They say students would get lost trying to learn in a language they can’t understand, become bewildered, frustrated, and drop out of school.

“When I was in school, I sat in a class, and didn’t understand a word the teacher said for six months,” said Tony Molina, a bilingual-education activist. “I just sat there and looked like a fool. Anything you miss you never get back.”

Massachusetts was one of the first states in the country to adopt bilingual education, when it passed the Bilingual Education Act in 1971.

Fearing immigrant students were getting lost in English-only classes, the state requires any school with more than 20 foreign-tongued students to teach them in their native tongue.

Over three years, the students learn English while taking their regular classes in their own language. After that, the law required the students to merge with English-speakers. Today, 80 percent of students succeed in “graduating” to the mainstream in that time.

At Boston’s English High School, where English is the second language for about 70 percent of students, refugees from Somalia and Haiti are going to school for the first time in their lives.

“What do you do then?” asked Francisco Ruiz, director of the school’s bilingual program. “Are you supposed to put them in the mainstream classes, without knowing English or the material?”

Bilingual-education supporters say they want the same thing as Silber – English literacy.

And they don’t dispute the shortcomings Silber sees. Many teachers aren’t well-trained, they admit, and classes at many schools are far too large.

But if Silber wants to keep the country under one language, they say, bilingual education is the way to do it.

“There’s no disagreement that the No. 1 purpose should be to help students become literate in English,” said Boston Schools Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant.

“The issue is how best to do it. If they can have support in their own language while learning, they can gain a good deal of confidence.”

In just one decade, the number of students in bilingual education has doubled to 44,000 across the state, one of the largest increases during that time of any state in the country.

Of the 315 school districts in the state, 51 have bilingual programs.

But today, the law “is a joke,” according to Christine Rossell, a Boston University professor who has advised Silber on bilingual education.

“People have been living a lie for 25 years,” Rossell said. “It’s sort of like having a mistress – everyone knows but the wife.”

During her research on a forthcoming book on bilingual education for the Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based libertarian think-tank, Rossell said, she found that schools only start bilingual programs when they have more than 110 foreign-speaking students.

“What school district can afford to have two kids in a classroom when the average teacher’s salary is $ 39,000?” asked Rossell.

“Schools know bilingual education isn’t going on, but they look the other way.”

Even when the foreign-language speaking population is large, she said, bilingual education isn’t what many people think.

Chinese, Khmer or Albanian and other students usually take classes taught only in English, with a side class in their own language, Rossell said.

The only students getting true bilingual education in Massachusetts are Hispanics, she said.

And controversy whirls over whether “true” bilingual education is doing what it’s supposed to.

Rossell said 72 nationwide studies show that bilingual students learn about the same amount of English as students who sit in mainstream classes.

But while they’ve been learning English, the mainstream students have left them behind in other subjects, Rossell said.

“Maybe it is a good thing at first, when the kid literally knows no English,” Rossell said. “But after that, there are problems.”

Other experts aren’t so sure.

For two years, a state panel tried to figure out whether bilingual education was working for Hispanic students.

In the end, the Bilingual Education Commission found, there isn’t enough data to draw any conclusions.

When he was a state representative, bilingual-education activist Nelson Merced said he asked numerous times for the state to compile data, but never got anywhere.

“Now people can say whatever they want to about bilingual education, because there are no numbers,” Merced complained.

But Donald Macedo, director of bilingual and English As a Second Language Education at UMass-Boston, said the wrong question is being asked.

“Education fails generally with minority students,” Macedo said. “Research shows over and over again that when it works, the students succeed and actually do better.”

But if Mikhail Lasota was given a choice, he said he’d prefer Silber’s plan. He credits the English he’s learned to his six months at St. Mary’s Schoolin Brookline, where the nuns put students directly into the mainstream classes.

“You learn quick when everyone’s speaking English,” he said. “You don’t have any choice.”

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