Immerse: Bilingual education encounters shift in philosophy

School Superintendent Kenneth A. Noonan found himself pacing the floor at night after learning that his Spanish-speaking students showed dramatic progress in classes that immersed them in English right away.

Why the anxiety over success stories in his Oceanside, Calif., district?

The boost in test results came after California abolished traditional bilingual education, something Noonan had supported for 28 years.

“As a superintendent, I in essence enforced bilingual education,” Noonan said during a phone interview. “I wondered, how many kids could we actually have moved into the mainstream more quickly?”

Experiences like Noonan’s are fueling a movement, felt from coast to coast, that seeks to change or end bilingual education. Western Massachusetts cities are among those considering whether to abandon decades-old programs.

Noonan, for one, describes his conversion to immersion as gut-wrenching. “It’s very difficult to go from saying the world is flat to saying the world is round,” he said. “It’s almost that powerful a change.”

The news that test scores rose in California after just two years of immersion reverberated around the country last year especially since opponents had predicted the worst. Noonan will bring his message about immersion’s power to Western Massachusetts when he speaks in Holyoke during a public forum Tuesday.

The immersion model remains controversial, however, with detractors maintaining that other factors, such as a greater emphasis on test-taking, may have helped push up California’s test scores.

But Sen. Guy W. Glodis, a Democrat from Worcester, is convinced. Some schools in the area already offer some type of immersion, and with Glodis’ bill proposing to eliminate the current system and bring “sheltered English immersion” to all schools, the entrenched battle over bilingual education has the potential to come to a head over the next year or so.

Glodis has promised to bring the issue to voters on the November 2002 ballot if the legislative channel fails. If this happens, Massachusetts would be yet another project of Silicon Valley businessman Ron K. Unz.

Unz bankrolled the successful 1998 ballot initiative that dismantled California’s bilingual education, in which students were taught mainly in their native language while gradually learning English. In its place came “structured English immersion,” in which students are placed in English-intensive classrooms for a year before being moved to regular classrooms.

Unz is now focusing on efforts in Colorado and New York, but he said he is prepared to head to Massachusetts to help with a ballot referendum next year.

Under a 1971 state law, Massachusetts schools must offer “transitional bilingual education” whenever 20 or more students speak the same language. The law mandates three years of the program, but schools can opt for longer stints with parental approval.

Many districts offer other instructional models, but transitional bilingual education is the staple. Critics say students can languish in these programs for years, with little academic progress to show for it. Supporters say English learners need time, and argue that these programs suffer from misconceptions about what goes on in the classroom.

With educators and policy makers still embroiled in the fight over how best to teach English, the scene inside a U.S. bilingual education classroom varies from one school to the next.

At Brightwood Elementary School in Springfield, a group of Spanish- and English-speaking students learn each other’s language together in a two-way bilingual education program.

At Kelly School in Holyoke, 14 kindergartners absorb English in an immersion program.

And learning in a different time zone, children in Suzanne Neel’s kindergarten bilingual education class in Dallas gathered on the floor on a typical day earlier this year. Neel pointed to a picture of a cat and said, “Bryan, qu? hay?”

But the class was eager, and a few voices piped up, “Un gato!”

They later sang a Spanish children’s song about “el gusano,” but when a student asked Neel about an activity, the longtime bilingual education teacher responded in English ? “When we’re finished, OK?”

“Some teachers have a block where they teach English more specifically,” Neel said later. But she weaves in both languages, relying on observations of her students’ familiarity with English to be her guide.

A teacher at Lorenzo De Zavala Elementary School, Neel said she and her colleagues in the Dallas Independent School District have some flexibility in how they run their bilingual education classes.

Neel said this type of program works because students gain a strong, systematic foundation in their native language, paving the way for them to learn English.

She said that while immersion programs may be highly touted by some, she believes students pay a high price for it.

“I think it’s a shame to take away their bilingualism,” she said. “That doesn’t become important again until they graduate from high school or college, when being bilingual is such a plus.”

Neel remembers her reaction when learning that a majority of California voters gave the go-ahead to switch from bilingual education to immersion essentially overnight.

“I thought it was just horrible,” she said. “I think it’s ignorant.”

Unz not only convinced California voters with his ballot campaign ? with his help, Arizona voters followed suit last year.

Glodis, the Worcester Democrat, proposes eliminating bilingual education here and placing English learners in what he calls a “sheltered English immersion” program for no more than a year.

He invited Unz to a news conference he held last year to announce this proposal, and has also said he will spearhead an initiative akin to Unz’s Proposition 227 campaign if his bill dies again.

Beacon Hill hearings on various bilingual education proposals will be held Tuesday. State Rep. Jarrett T. Barrios, a Cambridge Democrat, said this week that he and state Rep. Antonio F.D. Cabral, D-New Bedford, will file language seeking to amend the Glodis bill by replacing it with a bilingual choice and accountability bill.

Barrios convened a working group to examine ways to reform bilingual education. The resulting proposal would allow, and encourage, flexibility within bilingual education, he said.

Barrios said the Glodis bill suffers from the same problem as the current bilingual education law does. “It’s one size fits all,” he said. “Children learn differently.”

State Rep. Mary S. Rogeness, R-Longmeadow, re-introduced a bill this year to require that schools use either a “structured immersion program” ? where classes are conducted in English and a student’s native language is only used for clarification ? or a two-way bilingual model.

Rogeness has seen her bill shot down before. “If the Legislature turns this down, we’re likely to have a ballot initiative that would do away with it entirely,” she said.

After California took the ballot route to dismantle bilingual education, scores on the standardized Stanford 9 reading tests for students with limited English proficiency rose for all grades tested, with the greatest gains posted by the youngest students.

Grade 2 reading scores went up 9 percentage points between 1998 and 2000, moving students from the 19th percentile on national rankings up to the 28th percentile, according to the California Department of Education. Third-graders around the state posted gains of 7 percentage points. Grade 11 scores only nudged up 1 percentage point over the two years.

Noonan’s southern California school district of about 22,000 students was touted by immersion supporters as the state’s star student, a shining example of what could happen under immersion.

With few waivers granted to keep students in bilingual education, Oceanside Unified second-graders leapt from the 12th percentile to the 26th after just one year, and reached the 32nd percentile last year.

“Some of the best bilingual programs have the kids moving into mainstreaming between three and five years,” Noonan said. “Most bilingual programs, it takes five years or more.”

In Oceanside now, young Spanish-speaking children are nearly fluent after two or three years, he said.

But the results are not so clear-cut, according to a 1999 analysis and a follow-up 2000 examination conducted by Kenji Hakuta, a Stanford University education professor, and his colleagues.

Test scores rose not only for students learning English, but native speakers as well, the researchers found. Other factors, such as increased attention paid by schools to the standardized tests, could have played a role in boosting scores, according to the analyses.

A Massachusetts Department of Education report on these recent developments concluded that while “both sides agree that the elimination of bilingual education in California did not produce negative results,” neither immersion nor bilingual education has been proven to be superior.

Still, in a 7,119-student district with a more than 70 percent Hispanic matriculation and about a 26-percent bilingual education enrollment, some in Holyoke want to hear more. The forum slated for this week will feature Noonan and Ester J. deJong of Framingham Public Schools, who will speak about transitional bilingual education and two-way bilingual education.

“Massachusetts is locked into a system by statute and we really don’t have a lot of flexibility right now,” said School Committee member Michael J. Moriarty, pointing to Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test scores as a call to action.

Students with limited English proficiency are still generally expected to take the MCAS, and in the fourth-grade math exam, where 12 percent of regular education students statewide failed, 54 percent of students learning English failed. In Holyoke, the contrast was 23 percent in regular education and 78 percent for students with limited English proficiency.

“Without MCAS, those of us who would like to see change would be dismissed out of hand,” Moriarty said.

Recently released Census 2000 figures offer another reminder that districts need to remain vigilant in evaluating the effectiveness of bilingual education programs.

Hispanics experienced the highest growth rate of any demographic group in Western Massachusetts over the last 10 years. The Asian and Pacific Islander population followed. With immigrants who do not speak English among these groups, bilingual education will undoubtedly continue to pose a challenge to school districts ? especially urban ones such as Springfield, where whites are now a minority.

Holyoke’s first charter school, approved this year by the state Board of Education, made a promise to focus on bilingual education one of its main platforms. And strengthening bilingual education programs is one of the changes called for in Holyoke under a desegregation pact reached earlier this month between the district and lawyers for the Hispanic Parents Advisory Council.

In its search for more effective instruction, the Springfield district is considering expanding sheltered English immersion beyond the two schools where pilot classes were created this year.

Meanwhile, after sporadic efforts over the years to study bilingual education, School Committee member Jose F. Tosado recently called for an independent audit of the city’s $12.4 million program, which mostly serves Spanish-speaking students.

Like Holyoke, Springfield’s bilingual education enrollment, at 12 percent of the student population, far exceeds the state average enrollment of 4 percent. In the face of resistance by bilingual teachers ? there are 245 in the city ? Tosado promises to remain tough on the issue.

Nearly half of Springfield students are Hispanic, and although only a portion need bilingual education, Tosado is calling for the audit as part of a larger push to improve academic performance by Hispanic students. The so-called minority achievement gap is a nationwide problem, and language barriers are considered a factor for many Hispanic students.

Noting that Tosado is running for a seat on the City Council, instructor Lourdes Quinones echoed the sentiments of many when she said the criticisms about bilingual education seem curiously to intensify during election years.

“Our program comes under attack every four years,” said Quinones, who teaches English as a second language at the High School of Science and Technology.

Figures released by the Springfield district show that during the last school year, the most recent data available, only 13.5 percent of bilingual education students ? excluding those in both bilingual and special education ? have been in the program for four years or more. In Holyoke, that number is 26 percent for the current school year.

A report prepared by the Holyoke district last year found a revolving door for many in bilingual education, given that 463 of about 2,000 students left by the end of the 1999-2000 year ? with many expected to return eventually. Urban areas often have highly mobile populations, with residents moving around for economic reasons or for familial ones. A number of Hispanic children in Holyoke and Springfield, for example, are moved back and forth between here and Puerto Rico.

Rosa M. Frau, the former director of bilingual education in Holyoke who now oversees program assurance and school accountability, said criticism of bilingual education fails to take this fact of life into account.

“What I found from my years as the transitional bilingual education director was that students who were here consistently were the ones who moved considerably faster through (the programs),” she said. “The students who move back and forth (between districts) are the ones that stay longer in the Spanish-speaking classroom.”

“If they are going to have the same problem of mobility,” she said of immersion advocates, “they will have the same problem in either language.”

Staff writer Mary Ellen O’Shea contributed to this report.

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