Bilingual program banishes barriers

Hispanic pupils hit 'mainstream'

SOUTHBRIDGE—Teacher Digna Rosario is drilling 10 sixth-graders in English plurals, speaking mostly in Spanish.

“What is the plural of child? ” she says, lapsing into English.

“Children,” the group responds with varying degrees of certainty.

“What is the plural of man? “

Rosario is back to Spanish, explaining that these are exceptions to the rules of adding “s” or “es. ” After going through “half” and “halves,” she asks Jesus Alvarez to pluralize “hero. ” “No se,” he says a bit sheepishly, Spanish for “I don’t know. ” But he did know, because he had filled in that blank properly on the workbook page in front of him, spelling and all: “heroes. “

As the right answer comes out in class discussion momentarily, he marks himself correct with a sweeping, victorious “C.”

Besides language barriers, Transitional Bilingual Education also works to overcome feelings of insecurity during its three-year span.

After that period, pupils are supposed to be in exclusively English, “mainstream”classes. In Southbridge, more than 90 percent of the pupils are mainstreamed within three years. But the decision to cut them loose from TBE ultimately rests with parents, said Southbridge bilingual education director Adriana Anderson.


“This is something that happens not only in Southbridge, but in all bilingual programs,” said fellow teacher Margarita Roman-Figueroa.

“They don’t want to separate. “

“At this point,” said Anderson of middle schoolers, “if a student hasn’t been able to master the grammar in the primary language, it’s very difficult to transfer that knowledge to the second language. “

And the degree of schooling back in Puerto Rico – from which most Southbridge Hispanics hail – is as variable as one finds in rural, developing countries.

Most of the local Puerto Ricans come from the island’s rural heartland. Orocovis is a common town of origin, a place pupils describe as being surrounded by crops ranging from corn and beans to plantains.

Enforcement of truancy in Puerto Rico is lax, the teachers said, so it is common that students arriving in their high school years have serious deficiencies in their native language, never mind English.

But their parents, when asked why they come here, most often reply that it is for the sake of their children, said Anderson. A survey on that question was the focus of her master’s thesis.


Some immigrants develop quickly. Jesus’ sister Caraly Alvarez, 12, has had an easier time of school since arriving from the town of Carolina, Puerto Rico, only one year ago. She spoke no English then and has almost no accent now. Asked whether television helps, she shrugged.

“Maybe,” she said.

She knew, even in Puerto Rico, that she wanted to be a doctor. But a year ago, Caraly saw herself practicing on the island. No longer.

Though her father remains in Puerto Rico, she said she wants to be a doctor on the U.S. mainland.

Last year, she was taking all bilingual classes. This year, she’s already taking math and English in mainstream classes, along with minor subjects like gym.

Things may have slipped a bit for Miguel Santiago, 11, since he came to Southbridge last summer from the town of Tiburon in Puerto Rico’s northern mountains. By Miguel’s own admission, his B||C grade average has slipped to C||D.

He said his mother is fluent in English, a skill that is important “when you’re going to grow up (to understand) the rules and all those things. “

The ratio of English to Spanish spoken rides on the landscape of pupil needs in each TBE class observed.

Signs at Mary E. Wells Junior High School typify the feeling of a group experience: “No one is done until everyone is done. … Help other group members without doing their work for them… “


Ramon-Figueroa uses English to remind her fifth-period science pupils during a discussion of cell division: “Remember, we have a new student here who doesn’t speak any English at all, so we all have to help him. ” Pupils in the class follow her lecture with references back and forth between English and Spanish-language science texts.

“At the same time,” says the Charlton Street School’s Victor Monroy, “we don’t want the kids with good English to lose it. “

Striving and mixed emotions seemed to be common traits among several pupils interviewed, and classes observed.

Individual planning and tracking for each pupil keeps many moving in and out of mainstream classes, and keeps bilingual class sizes relatively small at Wells.

In the lower grades, pupils cycle in and out of “home rooms” for mainstream learning in subjects where their understanding is stronger.

When they aren’t in any of three particular English-speaking home rooms at Charlton Street School, 26 Hispanic third-graders call Monroy’s bilingual class home. They hear plenty of English there as well, along with Spanish and the veteran teacher’s art of unspoken communication.

Monroy could tower over his pupils, but he doesn’t. He sits barely above their height, arms folded. His voice is even in tone, even in the face of evidence that virtually no one completed a homework assignment on this confusing day after a weather-related school cancellation.


Tonight’s homework will be to find examples which use the five senses. The previous assignment about solids, liquids and gases is also due the next day. Yet there are no groans as Monroy explains this softly.

“That’s one of the situations that’s hard,” he says later. “They don’t get enough support from home to do the homework. But that’s not to make an excuse for them. It’s still their responsibility. “

Since state education reform began, certification as a bilingual teacher requires a master’s degree in bilingual education. “It’s very, very difficult to fill positions. Around this area we don’t have colleges that offer bilingual certification,” says Anderson, noting that the closest campuses offering such fare are in Chicopee and Amherst.

Course work in subject areas such as “cross-cultural communications” and “psycholinguistics” may seem specialized, but back in the classrooms the bilingual faculty members don’t have the luxury of specialization. Wells Junior High has three teachers and two assistants for 32 pupils in grades six through eight. Each of those children takes the normal menu of classes – some with, and some without bilingualism – to meet school requirements.

System wide, 151 are enrolled in bilingual programs to meet some portion of their curriculum needs.

Roman-Figueroa is certified to teach science, math and social studies. Rosario, who teaches in the same room during different periods of the day, takes on English, social studies and math students.

The staff has grown to eight teachers and 10 assistants, and leadership has been appointed in the two years since the state Department of Education and federal Office of Civil Rights raised issues about how well Southbridge meets its mandate to provide transitional bilingual education.

Anderson began coordinating TBE and English-as-a-second-language programs in March. ESL is for students of any background who need support in English, and may include some students who are also in TBE classes. Those programs were placed with special education under the direction of Steven F. Dupuis, who was hired in June as director of educational support services.

Dupuis also points to adding specialists like a bilingual speech therapist as evidence that the mandates are being better met. Still, there are challenges serving the students – some of whom move in and out of Southbridge from Puerto Rico. “You’ve only got them (for) three years there, and a big percentage of them are doing well and leave the program. There are considerable dropouts,” Dupuis said.

“They have the opportunity to learn in both languages,” Monroy says of his pupils, “and let’s face it: In the future, they have a lot of opportunities ahead of them. “

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