The superintendent is taking heat in the Hispanic community as meetings to discuss changes resume tonight.

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Diana Lam, the superintendent with more than a decade’s experience as a bilingual teacher and administrator, says she aims to take a fresh look at the city’s bilingual classes for Spanish-speaking children.

But some Spanish-speaking educators within the district, as well as Hispanic people in the community, say Lam is already destroying the bilingual program.

At the heart of the dispute are changes in the assignment of some Spanish-speaking bilingual students this coming fall at the middle and high school level.

The reassignments are expected to increase the students’ exposure to English-language instruction, at the same time cutting down on Spanish-language support and decreasing the number of bilingual teaching positions at the secondary level.

In recent months, the argument over bilingual education has become very loud, public, and personal, with one article in the Spanish-language newspaper Presencia using inflammatory language to accuse Lam of abandoning the Latino children who should be closest to her.

Lam, in turn, has written an open letter to the Latino community in which she said that false rumors about the impending elimination of the bilingual program come from people with “personal agendas” who do not necessarily have the best interests of bilingual students at heart.

Lam wrote that in many bilingual classrooms, half or more of the students are failing all or most of their subjects.

And some students are remaining as many as seven or eight years in bilingual classes that are supposed to be transitional, providing support only until students’ English-language skills are strong enough to serve them in regular classes, Lam said in the letter, which ran in the newspaper Providence En Espanol

The discussion on bilingual education will continue tonight at 7 with a public forum at the Alfred C. Lima Elementary School, on Daboll Street, one of two sessions rescheduled because of snow in early March. The other forum will be Thursday at 10 a.m. in the School Board room at the school administration building, 797 Westminster St.

ONE TEACHER who criticized the superintendent’s approach at a School Board meeting earlier this year has received a letter from Lam “directing her how to proceed in the future if she had something to say,” according to a spokesman for the Providence Teachers Union.

The teacher, Linda Filomeno, asked the union to advise her whether the letter constituted a “gag order,” said Joseph A. Almagno, executive director of the bargaining unit.

He said the union’s lawyer, Richard A. Skolnik, “drew the conclusion that her (Filomeno’s) rights had been violated, and asked (Lam) to have her attorney contact him.”

Skolnik’s three-page letter, obtained by The Journal, tells Lam that “the contents of your said letter are both inappropriate and illegal.”

A lawyer for the school district, Jeffrey W. Kasle, replied that Lam’s letter “was neither designed nor intended to prohibit Ms. Filomeno from legitimately and lawfully exercising her constitutionally protected rights.”

Kasle’s letter said that Filomeno, as an employee of the school district, has an obligation to “initially address any concerns she may have regarding school programs and systemwide directives with her supervisor, or with other administration officials, including the superintendent.”

Filomeno did not take that step before making public statements, Kasle said.

Filomeno declined all comment when she was approached by a reporter recently.

But a transcript of a School Board meeting in February shows she took umbrage at the way Lam pointed out deficiencies in the existing bilingual classes.

According to the transcript, she said, “Is it only the bilingual teachers that are not doing our job is it only the bilingual teachers who are being accused of keeping children and parents . . . (in their place)?”

“I am personally, personally insulted by this letter as a teacher in the Providence Public Schools,” Filomeno said.

The letter was sent home with ESL students “without ever coming to teachers asking us what were our remedies . . . plans . . . ideas,” Filomeno said.

THE FUROR began in January after Lam sent a memo to middle and high school principals outlining changes in the assignment of bilingual students with the most advanced skills in English as a Second Language classes.

These students have been taking math, social studies and science courses in Spanish. But this fall they will be exposed to more English-language instruction in these courses, with the support of a teacher qualified in English as a Second Language.

Lam called this step a transition toward complete English-language instruction and characterized it as a “minor” change.

In the meantime, she said, an outside consultant will begin next month to conduct a formal evaluation of the current ESL and bilingual program.

Jaime Aguayo, a community representative to the search committee that recruited Lam in 1999, objects to curtailing Spanish-language instruction for students who have shown they need it in core subjects.

“You do not find reform by coming in with a ball and destroying everything,” he said in a telephone interview.

In the mid-1990s, Aguayo worked with a group of educators and community people in designing the existing transitional bilingual program, which is entitled Language Instruction for Transition (LIFT).

It is intended to provide varying degrees of immersion in ESL classes, depending on an individual student’s needs, while allowing that student to progress academically through Spanish-language instruction in math, social studies, and science.

Before making any changes, Lam should reconsider LIFT, Aguayo said. She should “start where the process left off and move it forward,” bringing the community along with her, Aguayo said.

He said he objects primarily to the way Lam is going about her reform efforts, not the idea of change itself.

“What I see happening is an incredible educational opportunity being wasted, because (Lam) does not reach out and get involved, because she distrusts everybody,” Aguayo said.

If an innovation “doesn’t come from her, it’s no good,” he said.

Lam sought to set the record straight in a letter to the School Board earlier this month. She noted that she has been holding meetings with various segments of the community, including bilingual professionals, bilingual community leaders and bilingual parents, since Dec. 13. Except for a parent meeting on Feb. 15, all the sessions have been private.

A meeting at Lam’s house on March 19 was attended by 30 people, including Aguayo. At that session, she said, participants agreed to several points, including:

Creating a bilingual advisory council to involve the community in the program.

Offering a choice of programs to parents.

Creating comprehensive professional development opportunities for bilingual and ESL teachers.

Expanding a fledgling dual-language bilingual program designed to enable children to become literate in both languages.

Supporting the creation of an international high school where the dual-language bilingual program would be offered.

Creating a bilingual student-support system including summer clinics and literacy and language-immersion programs.

Discussing with the teachers union employment issues such as team-teaching and the hiring of bilingual guidance counselors.

Taking a variety of steps to ensure a consistent, high quality program at all levels.

In an interview, Lam said, “My major concern is the quality of the program and whether students are learning. Some parents say, ‘my child is not learning to read in Spanish or English.’ We want to address that,” Lam said.

“If we are going to teach in the child’s native language, I support that,” but she said the instruction must be of the same high quality that she seeks in every other change she makes in the school district.

JOSE ALEMAN, president of the Hispanic Organization of Providence Educators (HOPE), said teachers and administrators have been saying for years that “we have a deficiency within the system due to a lack of resources and professional development and a (lack of) a consistent policy” toward bilingual programs.

Bilingual education is carried out differently in different schools, he said. There is a dearth of Spanish-language teaching materials, and a uniform curriculum is lacking, Aleman said.

Unlike Aguayo, Aleman, an assistant principal at Central High School, said he is convinced Lam “believes in bilingual education” and is trying to do the best for those students.

But Aleman said no changes should be made until a formal assessment is completed. The interim change planned by Lam for the fall only confuses the community, he said.

Like Aguayo, Aleman said he is concerned that some students won’t be getting the Spanish-language instruction they still need to advance academically while their English-language skills solidify.

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A QUESTION OF LANGUAGE: Supt. Diana Lam says her concern is “whether students are learning. Some parents say ‘my child is not learning in Spanish or English.’ “

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