Critics decry new limits on bilingual classes

School official says 3-year cap will hurt students

FALL RIVER—New bilingual education regulations approved by the Board of Education, aimed at mainstreaming students within three years, “fly in the face of logic,” according to Richard Pavao, assistant superintendent of schools.

“All the education provisions we’ve been fighting for for 20 years are being wiped out,” said Pavao, who heads the department’s bilingual education program, one of the largest in the state.

Pavao said the regulations increase the size of bilingual classes from 18 to 20 students and eliminate parent advisory councils.

“We encourage (bilingual parents) to get involved in their kids’ education, but we strip away the means for them to do that,” Pavao said. “That doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Under the mandatory bilingual education program adopted by the state in 1970, school districts had to establish a parent advisory committee made up of parents of children in the program. The committees had to have at least five members, including one from every language group represented in the bilingual program.

School districts will now be required to develop “a means for including parents or guardians of students participating in such programs.”

The new regulations were pushed by John Silber, chairman of the Board of Education, in response to a study by the Center for Educational Opportunity that gave Massachusetts a D minus for its bilingual education program. The Washington-based think tank is headed by Linda Chavez, a former Reagan administration official.

“We are doing students a great disservice by not teaching them in English,” Silber said at a meeting Monday, during which the changes were unanimously approved by the board.

Board members said the regulations give the state’s school districts more flexibility. There are 44,000 bilingual education students in 51 districts.

The guidelines were the first major changes to the state bilingual education regulations. The modifications will become effective after 90 days. They are a precursor to legislative changes proposed by Governor Weld.

Critics of the changes say they will undermine the education of children who need the most help.

“This is an outright, racist attack, an attack to a community that’s been wounded again and again because policy-makers refuse to listen to real voices,” said Susan Alverado, executive director of the Latino Parents Association in Boston.

Under the new regulations students can be in the bilingual program only three years, regardless of whether they are able to keep up with the work in a mainstream classroom. There is no provision to keep those who need more help for a longer period in what is known as the the Bilingual Transitional Program.

“That leads to a problem,” Pavao said. “If you have a child that has a learning disability, or is illiterate in their native language, those kids may take longer.”

The limit is also three years under the current regulations but a school district can get a waiver to keep a student in the program for a fourth or fifth year.

Fall River has 823 students in the bilingual program, ranging from preschool through Grade 12. Pavao said the number is down from more than 1,100 three years ago, because of a drop in immigration. The program deals with three languages, Portuguese, Khmer and Spanish.

Pavao does not agree that the state is failing its bilingual students. And he dismisses the D- grade, saying it is from a conservative group with its own agenda.

“I never put out that report, nor was I asked to participate in any research or findings, and we’re one of the largest bilingual programs in the state,” he said.

The board also:

Changed the language of an old regulation that “highly encouraged” districts to provide kindergarten bilingual programs. The regulation now reads that school districts “may provide a kindergarten program.”

Altered the age span for kindergarten students in bilingual education. Previously, only one year could separate the oldest from the youngest kindergarten student. The new regulations allow a two-year age difference in kindergarten. A five-year age span will be allowed in the high school years, up from four years under the old laws.

Repealed a regulation prohibiting school districts from enrolling children of limited English-speaking ability with different language backgrounds in the same bilingual education class.

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