Rapid immersion' touted for bilingual education

Sen. Glodis says competing bill is too weak

BOSTON—Using the specter of a ballot initiative as a powerful lever, state Sen. Guy W. Glodis, D-Worcester, yesterday embarked on his campaign to radically overhaul the state’s bilingual education system.

Mr. Glodis wants to replace existing bilingual instruction, in which students are taught gradually, often in their native language, with a rapid immersion” program taught mainly in English and designed to have students speaking English in a year.

The state senator, who is threatening to bring the idea before voters next year in a statewide ballot referendum financed by a wealthy California activist, said his approach would help immigrants learn English faster and save taxpayers money.

The proposed legislation is vigorously opposed by bilingual teachers, immigrant groups and liberal legislators who call it a severe measure that will hurt speakers of foreign languages.

State Rep. Antonio F.D. Cabral, D-New Bedford, an immigrant from the Azores, has offered a competing bill that would allow school districts flexibility in structuring bilingual programs. Students could remain in bilingual classes for three years or more, or could be taught more rapidly.

The two sides fought it out yesterday at a hearing before the Legislature’s Education Committee, each painting a sharply contrasting picture of the state of bilingual education in Massachusetts.

About 150 people attended the hearing in Gardner Auditorium at the Statehouse, including many children holding signs saying: Two languages are better than one” and I like Spanish and English.”

Mr. Glodis said bilingual education students have the highest high school dropout rates and lowest test scores of any group of public school pupils, which he attributed to their inability to learn English.

The problem is quite simple,” he testified before the committee. Our students are not learning English because they are not being taught in English.

The current system is not working. It’s a disaster.”

At worst, what do we have to lose?” he added. Help these kids compete not only academically, but professionally when they enter the work force.”

Mr. Cabral maintained that immersion programs such as those touted by Mr. Glodis did not work when they were discontinued in the state 30 years ago.

Calling Mr. Glodis’ assertions fuzzy math,” Mr. Cabral said most bilingual education students make the transition to mainstream classes in two years.

Bilingual education has been a success. What’s been a disaster of epic proportions has been immersion,” he said. The main goal of transitional bilingual education is to teach English utilizing the strength of that student, which is their native language.”

Denying that his bill is unduly harsh or that it will eliminate bilingual education, Mr. Glodis pointed out that it lets parents extend the one-year program to two or three by signing a waiver.

I understand the need for bilingual education,” he said. What my bill does is simply pushes kids more quickly.”

Supporters and opponents of changing the system also disagree on the meaning of the rise in test scores of bilingual students in California after a 1998 ballot initiative there that passed with 61 percent of the vote. The initiative set up an intensive immersion program to replace the previous bilingual education program.

For Mr. Glodis, the results show that change works.

Last year, he hosted a visit to Massachusetts by the father of the California measure, self-made multimillionaire businessman Ron Unz, who may lend his financial clout to a similar movement here.

Mr. Cabral and other opponents discount the California experience, saying that state has nothing in common with Massachusetts.

Some critics of Mr. Glodis’ plan, such as Rep. Jarrett T. Barrios, D-Cambridge, are open to a compromise, such as stricter certification standards for bilingual teachers.

Mr. Glodis also is willing to compromise, but not much, he said.

He claimed the Cabral bill is really an attempt to co-opt his proposal, and that any attempt to water down the immersion bill will force his hand and push him toward a referendum.

The Cabral bill is a token attempt by the liberal left to appease real reformers,” Mr. Glodis said. I’m convinced there is broad appeal for this referendum.”

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