CUMBERLAND—The School Committee last night voted unanimously to dismantle its bilingual program for Portuguese-speaking children amid doubts about its effectiveness and a steady reduction in the target population.
Many communities in the state offer English as a Second Language (ESL) programs in which students are taught several hours of English each day and are taught basic academic subjects in English. Only Providence and Cumberland offer bilingual education, as well. Students in bilingual classes learn the academic basics in their native language (Portuguese only in the case of Cumberland) and receive some English instruction.
However, while Providence is expanding its bilingual effort, Cumberland is doing just the opposite. Starting this fall, foreign-born students will no longer be able to choose the method by which they learn English. The district’s only bilingual program, in grades K-3 at B.F. Norton School, will end, and two more ESL classes in grades 4 and 5 will be created.
Linguists have been debating the merits of both teaching methods since the 1960s, when the federal government, under pressure from civil rights groups, required states to establish Limited English Proficiency classes. Some consider complete immersion in English the way to go; others prefer knocking down the language barrier one step at a time to prevent students from falling behind in other subjects.
B.F. Norton is perhaps atypical in that there is a consensus among language teachers that two programs are not necessary, and that ESL is the better of the two, according to Supt. Joseph Nasif Jr.
“The teachers have recommended that the bilingual program conclude at the end of this year and that we go completely ESL” in grades K-12, he said.
The change isn’t meant to be a money saver in this time of tightening budgets, both Nasif and committee members said. On the contrary, it will cost the system another $ 11,000 to $ 13,000 to hire an additional ESL aide to absorb children now in the bilingual program as well as new students. The new hire has been included in the School Department budget proposal for next year, Nasif said.
School Committeeman Paul Neves applauded the shift and called it “educationally sound.”
“This is not a financial move,” he said.
In other action last night, committee members directed Nasif to ask school administrators to schedule field trips typically offered in the course of a year and then order teachers to chaperone them.
Teachers this year have refused to take students on field trips and oversee after-school activities as a bargaining tool during negotiations for a new contract.
“My understanding is that if the trips are related to the curriculum and take place during the school day they should still go on,” said Neves after introducing the issue for a vote.
The directive, committee member Richard Waterman echoed, “is meant to give the children as regular a school year as possible.”
Nasif said he wasn’t sure if he could do that. So Neves amended his motion to make it contingent on the advice of the School Department lawyer.
Frank Cooney, president of the Cumberland Teacher Association, approached the lectern before last night’s vote and told the committee that the value of field trips should be determined by the curriculum committees, not groups of elected officials or non-teaching personnel. He also warned the committee that it “may be opening a door that hasn’t been opened” by asking principals to become involved in the minutia of day-to-day teaching.
“You wouldn’t want to create precedence that in other years you won’t want to follow,” he said.
Committee members nonetheless voted 6 to 1 in favor of the mandate, with Committeewoman Marcia Postal-Ranney dissenting.