Change eyed in bilingual classes

Silber: Programs are a 'disaster'

State education officials moved yesterday to relax requirements for bilingual education programs in public schools.

“There’s all kinds of evidence bilingual education doesn’t work,” said John Silber, chairman of the state Board of Education. “It’s a disaster. There are a lot of changes that need to be made.”

He commented after the board voted unanimously to seek public comment on changing both the state regulations and law covering bilingual education in schools with students not proficient in English.

Silber said modifying the regulations alone doesn’t go far enough. He wants the Legislature to change the state law to allow school districts to replace existing bilingual classes with English-only instruction.

State Education Commissioner Robert V. Antonucci didn’t go that far. But he said he wants to allow larger classes, eliminate a requirement for parent advisory councils and drop recommendations that school systems have bilingual kindergarten, parent liaisons and guidance counselors.

Antonucci said making these and other changes would give school districts the flexibility they need to run more effective and less costly bilingual programs.

Still, bilingual education advocates said they worry the changes would gut existing programs and leave non-English proficient students without language services they need to learn in the public schools.

In bilingual classes, such students study math, science and other subjects in their native languages, while also learning English. They gradually move into regular academic classes as they gain command of English.

State law requires a school district to set up a transitional bilingual education program when there are at least 20 students of limited English- speaking ability with the same language.

Advocates for bilingual education said they’re concerned that any changes in the law or the state regulations would harm students who are not fluent in English.

“The transitional bilingual education programs will become crippled and the law unworkable,” said Marla Perez Selles, president of the Massachusetts Association for Bilingual Education.

She said the changes would weaken crucial supports for bilingual students when they need it most — to meet tougher requirements in the 1993 Education Reform Act.

Quincy, Randolph and Scituate are the only South Shore school districts that have bilingual programs. Other districts, with fewer than 20 students in a single language group, only offer instruction in English as a second language.

Antonucci said he is recommending eliminating many education department bilingual language regulations that are obsolete, advisory or redundant with the state law. But the bilingual advocates disagree about the effect of some of the proposed changes.

For example, the regulations require that there be one bilingual teacher for every 18 students, or a teacher and an aide for every 25 students.

Antonucci is proposing to change the maximum student-teacher ratio to an average of 20-to-1. He says that would give districts more flexibility, so they could have a class of 21 or 22 students without adding staff.

“What I’m trying to do is find a moderate balance, provide for students in a way that is cost-effective and educationally effective,” Antonucci said in an interview.

However, advocates worry classes would be too large and individual students wouldn’t get the attention they need.

Eventually, Antonucci said, he’d like to approve the kind of “creative” bilingual program that the Department of Education rejected for Quincy last year.

Under the Quincy plan, elementary school children who speak Vietnamese, Spanish or other languages would receive intensive lessons in English rather than separate instruction in their native tongues. The law currently prohibits such a program.

“I would like the state to have options,” Antonucci said. “One model doesn’t fit all students.”

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