Politicians Wonder What's Lost in the Translation

Bills weigh strategy to improve transition; politicians are wondering what's lost in translation

Diana Restrepo spoke only her native Spanish when she came to the United States from Colombia three years ago and began her freshman year in Framingham High School’s bilingual program.

Fluent in English after only two years, Diana credits the program, which allowed her to start out by taking a handful of classes in Spanish and the rest in English. The program, she says, was intense enough to teach her the second language, but not so intense that she felt lost or isolated in a new school and a new country.

“It was a relief, completely,” Diana, now a junior, said last week during an awards dinner celebrating the achievements of Framingham High’s English-as-Second-Language and bilingual students. “They give you time to accommodate.”

But the concern that some bilingual students are given too much time to adjust – and, as a result, never make a full transition to mainstream English-speaking classrooms – is the topic of an ongoing discussion on Beacon Hill that could culminate in a policy change this year. Many educators across the region worry that a political resolution to the debate could come at the expense of students’ academic and social success.

Arguing that too many students stay in bilingual classes for too long, state Senator Guy Glodis is seeking to replace transitional bilingual programs with a one-year ESL immersion program, which would offer students less support in their native language and put them on the fast-track to fluency in English. The proposal mirrors initiatives that passed in Arizona and California, financed by California millionaire Ron Unz.

Glodis’s bill is one of two bilingual proposals under consideration by the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education. The other, filed by state representatives Antonio Cabral and Jarrett Barrios, would sanction a variety of approaches to bilingual education, including programs that involve native English-speakers, in order to meet the needs of a diverse population.

Glodis, a Democrat whose district includes Shrewsbury, says it is about time that the state considered revising its 30-year-old bilingual law, which he believes has inhibited achievement by segregating students into inferior programs, and allowing them to rely too heavily on their native languages.

“Kids aren’t learning English because they’re not being taught English,” he said.

Proponents of bilingual education recognize that fluency in English is a goal, but many say it is not the only goal. Because rapid-immersion programs force almost complete attention to language skills, educators worry students will fall behind in other academic subjects. The key, they say, is not necessarily which language students are using, but whether they are keeping up with lessons in history, science, and math.

“Reading is interpreting the print on the page,” said Minerva Gonzalez, a bilingual curriculum specialist and incoming principal of Barbieri Elementary School in Framingham. “Once you learn to read, whether it’s English or Spanish, it’s literacy.”

“The medium of instruction doesn’t matter,” said Jill McCarthy, coordinator of bilingual and ESL programs for the Newton school system, which offers bilingual instruction in two Chinese dialects, Russian, Japanese, Spanish, Hebrew, and Korean, and is about to begin a Portuguese program. About 600 of the city’s 11,000 students are enrolled in an ESL or bilingual class.

The current state law suggests that students spend an average of three years in a bilingual program, but it allows for a longer transition if necessary. Many educators say the length of time a student spends learning English depends on how well that student has mastered his or her native language, and believe that setting a universal timeframe for all students – be it one year or three – would be ill-advised.

“I don’t know if there’s a magic number,” said Robert Berardi, superintendent in Milford, which offers bilingual programs in Spanish and Portuguese to about 650 of its 4,300 students.

But Berardi also believes teachers have to recognize when students are ready to move on. The concern that students can become overly dependent on bilingual support, he says, is realistic.

“I can see that happening,” Berardi said. “I think that’s the piece we have to watch out for.”

Diana Restrepo can see it happening as well. She has classmates whom she believes have stayed in bilingual and ESL programs because they prefer to take classes with peers of similar cultural backgrounds. While she understands their reluctance to join mainstream classrooms, she hopes they realize the different classes they can take once they make the transition from bilingual education.

“When you get out of this program, all these doors open to you,” said Diana, who is now studying Japanese and plans to start learning Russian next year.

More than 1,500 of Framingham’s 8,500 students are enrolled in a bilingual or ESL class. The district is one of a handful in Massachusetts that offers a “two-way” bilingual program – one of the methods sanctioned under the Cabral/Barrios legislation – which pairs native English- and Spanish-speakers and teaches all students both languages. Gonzalez, Barbieri Elementary School’s incoming principal, notes that the two-way approach not only benefits students academically, it also has fostered strong relationships across cultures.

“It used to be ‘those Spanish kids,’ ” she said of many students’ attitude toward the school’s native Spanish-speakers. “Now they know them by name.”

Short of an official two-way arrangement, some school districts offer a world languages program that allows native English-speakers to learn a second language and then integrate with the school’s bilingual students for classes such as art and music. Marlborough offers Spanish and Portuguese bilingual programs to about 600 of its 4,000 students, and has begun teaching Spanish to native English-speakers in grades 1 and 2.

“They share their languages . . . and it’s normal,” said Beverly Glackemeyer, Marlborough’s bilingual and ESL coordinator.

Glodis resents assertions that he is trying to eliminate bilingual education, pointing out that his proposal offers students a chance to seek more support if they are not successful in learning English after one year. He adds that he is not trying to devalue a student’s heritage, only to ensure that students have access to mainstream educational opportunities.

“It’s an asset to be multilingual,” he said. “I’m not trying to take someone’s native language away from them.”

The legislative committee on education will review both the Cabral/Barrios proposal and Glodis’s proposal. Members of the committee say they are not discounting either piece of legislation.

“We’re taking both approaches seriously,” said Sylvia Smith, chief of staff for state Senator Robert Antonioni, a Leominster Democrat who cochairs the education committee. “This year, the proposals that are before us are much more substantial.”

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