Schools struggle to reach immigrant children

Competing plans claim mantle of progress

For three decades, the issue of teaching English to foreign language-speaking pupils was on the back burner on Beacon Hill.

But this year, threatened by a ballot initiative aimed at scrapping the aging bilingual education system, state lawmakers took action and crafted a bill to reform the old system. The bill was signed into law by Gov. Jane M. Swift last week.

Under the measure, immigrant and minority pupils- who now spend an average of three years in ”transitional” bilingual classes- would be largely limited to two years. School districts would also be given more freedom to try various instructional approaches, and there would be greater state oversight. ”It would allow local communities to tailor plans that would better meet the needs of immigrants and bring them to English fluency quicker,” said state Sen. Robert A. Antonioni, D-Leominster, one of the bill’s two co-sponsors.

But the Legislature’s move may be too late.

A recent independent poll showed overwhelming support for the ballot question, which is being promoted and financed by California multimillionaire Ron Unz, who bankrolled a similar initiative that overhauled bilingual education in his state.

Backers of the initiative, which would throw students into a one-year intensive ”immersion” program in English, say radical steps are needed to improve the poor academic performance of many non-English speakers.

Minority language groups, bilingual professionals and teachers’ unions are gearing up for a major fight against the initiative. They say the measure is a mean-spirited, draconian assault on the language and culture of immigrants and minorities.

This fall will see a high-pitched battle involving television and print advertising, volleys of political rhetoric and the opposing sides questioning each other’s motivations.

”The Unz initiative has nothing to do with educating children. It’s cultural, racist politics,” said Margaret C. Serpa, bilingual program director for Fitchburg schools. ”It is contrary to everything this country stands for (for) immigrants.

”The schools are already uninviting for immigrant parents and families,” she said. ”With these policies, we’d be disallowing programs that will give them success.”

Mr. Unz argues the opposite. The Silicon Valley software entrepreneur maintains, as he has in similar campaigns in California and Arizona, that immersing newcomers to Massachusetts in the language of their new country is the most effective route to assimilation and success.

He and local backers of the initiative point to the significantly higher test scores achieved by Hispanic students in California- which has the country’s biggest bilingual program- since the bilingual education was revamped in 1998.

Massachusetts had about 36,000 youths in bilingual programs in the 2000-01 school year, according to the state Department of Education. While 135 languages are spoken in the state’s schools, by far the largest group in transitional bilingual classes is Spanish speakers. In 2000-01, more than 22,000, or 62 percent, were Spanish-speaking.

The next-biggest group was Portuguese speakers, accounting for 8.3 percent of the total. Haitian Creole speakers were the third-largest group, with 4.4 percent. Khmer speakers from Cambodia were next, with 1,039, or about 2.9 percent of the total.

In Fitchburg, about 400 of the 650 students enrolled in bilingual classes speak Spanish as their native language. The Spanish language group is the only one in which a foreign language is predominantly spoken in the classroom. The other sizable groups- Portuguese, Vietnamese and Hmong- attend ”sheltered immersion” classes taught mostly in English.

”I don’t think that most immigrant families that come to America or Massachusetts pay that much attention to the bilingual policy,” Mr. Unz said. ”They pay attention to jobs and opportunities. Our initiative would dramatically increase their chances of being successful and having their children get educated and get good jobs.”

But bilingual education advocates say the California test scores do not prove the success of Mr. Unz’s ideas. They say that smaller class sizes and improvements in reading instruction methods had more to do with the improvements, and they noted that non-English-proficient pupils’ scores still are well behind those of English speakers.

Another front in the war against the ballot question centers on the initiative’s provision allowing parents to sue teachers and school administrators who do not follow the immersion method.

”This is an anti-union initiative,” said Samuel Rosario of Worcester, a regional chairman of Oiste! (Listen Up), the statewide Hispanic advocacy group.

Mr. Rosario argued that the Worcester school system, in particular, does not need to be fixed.

Worcester schools move 80 percent of their foreign language speakers out of bilingual classes in less than three years. And the system boasts a popular ”two-way” program, in which native speakers of English learn the languages of foreign-born classmates.

”Why should we handcuff the superintendent?” asked Mr. Rosario, a supporter of the bill filed by Mr. Antonioni and Rep. Peter J. Larkin, D-Pittsfield, who is co-chairman of the Legislature’s Education Committee. ”The bill gives the local flexibility we need. It’s not a legislative issue. It’s a parental and school issue.”

Meanwhile, the forces behind the initiative petition are preparing for the fall campaign leading up to the Nov. 5 election.

Sen. Guy W. Glodis, D-Auburn, has been a high-profile foe of bilingual education during his seven years in the Legislature. His father, a former Worcester state representative, filed the first bill to overhaul the system 18 years ago.

Outside the Legislature, Sen. Glodis has worked closely with Mr. Unz and was a key organizer of the initiative campaign’s effective signature-gathering drive this spring and summer.

Mr. Glodis calls the Antonioni-Larkin bill, a ”watered-down rubber stamp of the status quo.” He said he is convinced that bilingual education has held immigrants back.

”This is going to be the greatest thing that will happen to immigrants in Massachusetts,” he said of the ballot question. ”For the first time, we will be teaching immigrants to speak English, which is a prerequisite not only for employment, but success.”

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