When Dennis Frias immigrated to Hudson 40 years ago, he could speak only Portuguese.
There were no special programs then for pupils with limited English proficiency, but the Azores immigrant had youth on his side. Like most 7-year-olds, Frias eagerly soaked up everything he could learn about his bright new world, including the language.
But Frias saw teen-agers from his native country being placed in elementary classrooms. The older students were so humiliated that many of them would skip school. They counted the days to their 16th birthday, when they could drop out of school and go to work. Mr. Frias, the bilingual director for kindergarten through Grade 12 in the Hudson public schools the past 10 years, is afraid that a movement to dismantle the state’s transitional bilingual education program would result in older bilingual students not acquiring the skills they need to be successful in life.
”The bilingual education program has salvaged thousands of kids,” said Mr. Frias, who is finishing his second master’s degree related to bilingual education. ”Our big focus is on teaching them English as quickly and comfortably as possible and preparing them so they can function in college and be ready for the job force.”
While Mr. Frias adamantly supports the retention of the bilingual program, he and others say it needs a major overhaul. There have been very few modifications to the law since it was enacted in 1969. Several bills expected to be filed this week will attempt to do that.
Others, including state Sen. Guy W. Glodis, D-Worcester, believe the current way of teaching limited-English pupils should be scrapped altogether. The bilingual program, he says, slows the progress of immigrant pupils.
Mr. Glodis favors replacing the state’s transitional bilingual program with a one-year intensive English immersion program. The current program generally allows immigrant pupils three years in which they are taught academics in their native language as they gradually learn English.
With the financial backing of Ron Unz, a multimillionaire from California, Mr. Glodis has been successful in gathering signatures to place his bilingual reform initiative on the statewide ballot in November. Mr. Unz, a Harvard graduate and former gubernatorial candidate in California, helped get a similar measure passed there in 1998. He later spearheaded a similar successful effort in Arizona.
”The bottom line is bilingual education has been a colossal failure,” Mr. Glodis said. ”Bilingual students have the highest high school dropout rate. They have the lowest MCAS test scores. They have the lowest college admissions and they proceed to English classes at a dismal 10 percent annually. That’s a 90 percent failure rate. So who in their right mind can defend status quo?”
While limited-English pupils have had a low passing rate on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests, the rate has improved. Thirty-eight percent of limited-English pupils who took the test in 2000 passed, up from 25 percent the previous year.
Mr. Frias said too much emphasis is put on test scores. If a child with limited English immigrated to this country in the ninth grade, he said, the student likely will not perform well on the MCAS or Scholastic Assessment Test.
”If they fail the MCAS and don’t get 900 or 1,000 on their SATs, that does not mean students can not make it in college and be successful,” Mr. Frias said. ”We’ve had many, many kids who go on to college.”
Ellen Rintell, who began teaching bilingual classes when the law took effect in 1969, said all the research she has seen shows that one-year intensive English immersion programs are not helpful to pupils.
”It’s a common-sense thing. How can you read and write in a language you don’t understand?” she said. Ms. Rintell is coordinator of the master’s programs in ESL and bilingual education at Salem State College. She recently conducted a workshop for bilingual teachers in the Fitchburg public schools.
”Research shows that children who have good literacy backgrounds- can read and write in their native language- will do academically much better in their second language than if they’re just doing English right away,” Ms. Rintell said.
Sergio M. Paez, bilingual and ESL director in Leominster, agrees with Ms. Rintell. He said research he has done in his advanced studies at Harvard University does not support rapid English immersion.
”If it was that easy, why don’t English speakers learn Italian, French and Spanish in one year in high school? They have many years to try to learn a language,” said Mr. Paez, a native of Colombia.
He said elementary school pupils in a two-way program he directs are testing one or more years ahead of regular learners. The classes are filled with a mix of Spanish speakers and English speakers. Material is taught in Spanish 50 percent of the time and in English 50 percent of the time. The Spanish speakers become fluent in English, and the English speakers learn Spanish.
”I’ve seen progress in every aspect. In three years, I’ll probably be able to say this is one of the best programs in the state,” Mr. Paez said.
Kristan E. Horne, assistant principal of Francis J. Kane School in Marlboro, said a one-year intensive English immersion program would teach pupils to speak English at the expense of acquiring academic skills.
”Yes, they are acquiring English. But they haven’t necessarily acquired skills for decoding words, gained any mathematical skills,” she said. ”Then when they’re out of the immersion program, what happens a lot of time is they end up in special education. It has nothing to do with any kind of disability. It has to do with language acquisition.”
Gov. Jane M. Swift and several legislators are also weighing in on the controversial subject. In her recent State of the State address, Ms. Swift promised to file a bill to overhaul the bilingual education program. The bill would replace the one-size-fits-all approach with one that gives parents and school districts more flexibility.
State Sen. Robert A. Antonioni, D-Leominster, also plans to file a bill that would similarly give districts the flexibility to shape programs that work best for them. His bill is akin to one state Rep Antonio F.D. Cabral, D-New Bedford, submitted as a draft last year and plans to file. All three bills are expected to be filed this week.
Mr. Antonioni said his bill, unlike the current program and Mr. Glodis’ ballot question, does not promote one model of learning over another.
”The bill allows districts any one program or a combination of programs that the district feels would be beneficial to the students there,” he explained.
The bill also holds the district accountable. The state Department of Education has to review and evaluate each local bilingual education program every three years, similar to what’s required for special education programs. Bilingual pupils would also be tested annually to determine their progress in learning English. Pupils would have two years in the program, with the possibility of a third year of intensive English, before being required to exit the program.
Teacher qualification is also addressed by Mr. Antonioni’s bill. Currently, bilingual teachers are unofficially given a waiver on an annual basis because of a purported shortage of bilingual teachers. The senator’s bill requires that all teachers of English-language learners become certified in bilingual education within five years, the cap given to all other teachers.
The bill also makes adjustments in calculating the foundation budget to provide increased financial support to school districts with significant numbers of bilingual students. And, also unlike the current program and the ballot question, Mr. Antonioni’s bill would require that bilingual programs be aligned with the Education Reform Act.
Mr. Glodis’ ballot question allows school districts to place in the same class English learners of various ages and different native languages with a similar level of English proficiency during the one-year intensive English immersion program.
It also would require an annual test to ensure bilingual pupils in Grade 2 and higher are learning English along with other academic subjects. The ballot question also asks the Legislature for $5 million for each of the next nine fiscal years to fund free or subsidized English language programs for parents and other adults in the community who pledge to tutor English-learning students.
One of the more controversial provisions of the ballot question would allow parents of bilingual pupils to sue a school district employee, school committee member or other elected official or administrator who doesn’t enforce the new law. If such litigation were successful, the school employee would be barred from employment in any school district and a school committee member would be barred from serving on the school committee for five years.
In a recent telephone interview, Ron Unz said the provision would help prevent bilingual proponents from resisting the law, something that happened with California’s less tightly written law. He said bilingual educators encouraged hundreds of parents to apply for waivers to exempt their children from leaving the transitional program.
Mr. Unz said tests scores for children in districts that switched to the one-year intensive immersion program have increased 50 percent. Another testament to the success of the program, Mr. Unz said, is the conversion of former staunch opponents, including the president of the California State Board of Education and the founder of the California Association of Bilingual Educators.
David P. Dolson, bilingual consultant for the California Department of Education, however, contests Mr. Unz’s assertion that increased test scores are the result of his new law. He said the law was passed in 1998 and took effect in the 1999-2000 school year. The program has not been in place long enough to gauge its success, Mr. Dolson said.
”Test scores have been up in California the last few years, but most researchers would say it’s related to many factors,” Mr. Dolson said. ”Quite a bit of new funding has been poured into the school system, resulting in class size reduction, curriculum and standards reform, longer and more school days, and new programs beyond the school day and on Saturdays and in the summer.”
Mr. Unz said the California Department of Education ”strongly opposed the initiative, so it’s fairly difficult for them to admit they’re wrong.”
The National Association of Bilingual Education in Washington strongly opposes the one-year intensive immersion program, saying it’s another unrealistic one-size-fits-all mandate for serving English learners.
”Regardless of your position on bilingual education, one size is not going to fit all these kids,” said NABE spokesman Jaime A. Zapata.