PROVIDENCE – Working the crowd in her native Spanish, Supt. Diana Lam stood in the auditorium of the Perry Middle School last night, going one-on-one with Latino parents on bilingual education while one of her critics stood beside her giving his opinions on the controversy.

The meeting, which drew more than 100 people, quickly broke up into separate clusters, with Lam and a retinue of supportive administrators talking to shifting groups of parents seeking practical advice on where to place their children.

Meanwhile, critics of Lam’s approach to bilingual education, like Hamlet Lopez, a teaching assistant at the Alfred A. Lima Elementary School, held forth in their own small groups of listeners.

And those who apparently felt they wouldn’t get their questions answered last night trickled out of the room.

At least two parents said their children were learning neither English nor Spanish in the combination of Spanish-language and English as a Second Language classes that are supposed to serve as a transition to the regular classroom. More than 4,600 Providence students are enrolled in programs for children with limited English skills.

Lam has asked middle and high school principals to assign the most advanced ESL students to English-language math, science, and social studies classes in September that otherwise would have been taught in Spanish.

This small change, which will include the support of an ESL teacher, will give the students greater reinforcement in English before they leave the program entirely for a regular classroom, Lam has said.

Meanwhile, a formal evaluation of the bilingual and ESL program will begin next month.

Lam pointed out last night that all facets of school operations have been on the table for scrutiny since she arrived in Providence in August, 1999, charged with turning around the state’s largest and most problematic school district.

Any recommended changes from the evaluation will not be implemented until September 2002, she said.

But even the single change Lam has directed for next fall has unleashed a firestorm of criticism from various Spanish-speaking quarters inside and outside the school department.

Lopez, for example, stood next to Lam early in the meeting holding aloft a copy of yesterday’s Providence Journal, which was opened to an article on the bilingual education controversy. Lopez offered his own translation and opinion of the English-language article.

Interviewed in Spanish later, Lopez said that Lam falsely claimed in the article that several points of consensus were reached in a private meeting in her home on the issue March 19.

Lopez said he did not attend the meeting, because he believed it was improper for a public official such as Lam to have such a closed-door session.

But he nevertheless asserted that the points of consensus claimed by Lam in actuality originated with the existing framework for bilingual education, called Language Instruction for Transition, or LIFT.

Lopez, like Jaime Aguayo, another of Lam’s critics, said the superintendent should revisit the existing LIFT program and the community that helped create it several years ago before moving forward with any changes.

Later in the evening, Lam reiterated the points of consensus she said were reached in the March 19 meeting, which primarily relate to improving the overall quality of bilingual and ESL education and providing bilingual students with more support in learning English.

“I don’t have anything against LIFT,” she said ” . . . but we have to bring coherence and consistency” to bilingual education.

She said one parent told her that her child was in a bilingual program but was learning only English. Another parent said her child was in an English-only program but was learning only Spanish.

“We have to define our terms,” Lam said.

Some parents were overheard asking Lam for advice on practical issues like whether a 5-year-old reared in Spanish was developmentally ready to tackle a curriculum in English.

Lam said many parents need help in figuring out how a bilingual program works, but she emphasized that the choice of placing their children should be theirs, and not the school district’s.

Jorge Alvarez, the principal of the Perry Middle School, agreed that parents should be able to choose whether they send their children to a bilingual program, but he disagreed with Lam’s approach, calling it a “dictatorship.”

Lam said she picked up from parents “strong support for raising the quality of the program,” as well as a call for help in orienting themselves toward choosing a program for their children.

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