SALEM—Silfida Gomez, 15, arrived from the Dominican Republic five years ago, unable to read or speak a sentence in English.
After two years in a transitional bilingual class where she learned her core subjects in Spanish, Gomez gradually switched to English-only classes. The Salem High School sophomore recalls those changing classes when speaking against Gov. William Weld’s proposal to have bilingual students mainstreamed into English-only classes more quickly.
“There are three things you have to learn when you come here,” says Gomez. “The language, the people and the subjects. Sometimes you feel lost and need time. I don’t think Weld’s bill is fair because everybody should be given an opportunity to get acquainted with the language for as long as they need to.”
Weld’s proposal, which would revamp the state’s 24-year-old bilingual education law, suggests different ways of teaching students, including immersing them in English-speaking classes, using their native language only to clarify points. It limits students to three years in transitional bilingual classes and would require that at least one-third of a student’s day be spent in classes taught in English. It also calls for more parental input in deciding what class their child should attend.
While the current bilingual law has similar provisions, critics charge they are sometimes ignored and students languish in transitional classes. They say the proposal is needed to ensure all students, regardless of their native language, graduate with the same English skills.
Opponents say the law will leave struggling students behind, perhaps even force some to drop out, if they are pushed into English-only classes before they are ready. Many say the new proposal will be less flexible than the current law.
A daylong legislative hearing late last month on the bill drew an estimated 2,000 demonstrators outside the State House, including parents from the North Weekly region. No action has yet been taken on the bill.
“All the governor is doing is trying find a way to serve the students and recognize our obligation to English as a primary language,” says James T. Leonard, Lynn’s superintendent. About 11 percent of Lynn’s students, or around 1,300 students, are in transitional bilingual education classes.
“I applaud him for addressing this. I don’t believe it’s doomsday for bilingual education,” Leonard said. “I think this opened the door to take a real look at the law. I think it is going to help students.”
Under the current bilingual law, a school must provide transitional bilingual classes if there are more than 20 students of any one language group in the school system who have limited English ability. For schools with less than 20 students, tutoring or English as a Second Language (ESL) classes are used. The law was passed in 1971 to deal with the large number of Spanish-speaking youths from Central, South America and the Caribbean.
There are 51 communities in the state that have such transitional classes. According to the state Department of Education, the number of students in transitional bilingual education classes rose from 32,665 in 1989 to 38,636 in 1993, the latest year for which figures are available.
In the communities north of Boston that have such classes – Chelsea, Haverhill, Lynn, Peabody, Malden, Revere and Salem – students learn core subjects in their native language. They stay anywhere from two to four years, gradually learning English before being mainstreamed into English-only classes. Some communities, like Salem, have two-way programs in which English and Spanish-speaking youths are taught in both languages. Such two-way programs are touted in Weld’s bill.
Many bilingual teachers and parents of bilingual students say they want their children to graduate with the same skills as native English speakers. Some, however, feel that happens under the bilingual program now in place.
“We’re not saying stay in these programs for ten years,” says Victor Perez, head of Salem’s bilingual parent advisory council. “But it is sometimes difficult, you cannot say ‘you have to learn in two years’ or whatever. I am worried” some students might drop out, he said. Perez, as well as Quy Dang, of Chelsea, a Vietnamese parent, said some students simply need more time before they are competent enough in school to progress to English-speaking classes. Dang and Perez both feared some students would be pushed into English classes with little evaluation of their English skills under the proposal.
Some school administrators interviewed last week didn’t express approval or disapproval of the entire proposal, but spoke about their particular programs.
In Peabody, for example, where only about 50 students receive transitional Spanish education, (Portugese classes ended two years ago after fewer than 20 students met the criteria) C. Milton Burnett, administrator of instruction, said a less structured approach than under the current law might serve more students with more services. In Revere, school superintendent Wayne LaGue said because many bilingual students are mainstreamed already after three years and sections of the day are already spoken in English, parts of the proposed law are a moot point to him.
Still, supporters of the bill, including Steve Wilson, Weld’s director of strategic planning for administration and finance, said the law allows bilingual education to have checks and balances where none existed before.
A special state commission on bilingual education last year said that no reliable data has been collected to find out if the current law works. It also determined that it was more expensive to school a bilingual student than a regular education student.
“We just don’t know what went on before,” Wilson said, adding students are frequently put in transitional bilingual classes without parental input. He said some parents would probably want their child in English classes almost immediately to learn the language.
Richard Whaley, coordinator of transitional bilingual education for Haverhill, said parents in his school district already are alerted to what classes their children can enter. He said students in bilingual classes are not only struggling to overcome language barriers, but many come from disadvantaged backgrounds that might mean they need more help during their first years in the country. He fears the proposal would not give them the chance to get that help in a familiar language.
“We’re not talking about middle class kids, many are poor and there are a whole other set of issues they are dealing with,” Whaley said. “It is going to take them even longer so they can compete with their peers. This proposal seems to strip away the rights of the kids.”