State ignores parents, relaxes bilingual education

The state Board of Education rejected the pleas of parents and went as far as it could to relax requirements for bilingual education programs in the public schools.

The changes allow larger classes, permit districts to eliminate parent advisory councils and drop recommendations for bilingual kindergarten, guidance counselors and parent liaisons.

The board also unanimously endorsed Gov. William Weld’s plan to overhaul the nation’s first bilingual education system, which has not been significantly altered in 25 years. His proposal to change state law would allow school districts to replace transitional bilingual education with intensive English-only instruction.

“Bilingual education is a failure. It’s a demonstrable failure,” Board of Education Chairman John Silber said after yesterday’s meeting at Melrose High School. “It’s time we made the reforms necessary to achieve its original purpose — to give these children the opportunity to be mainstreamed.”

Parents of bilingual students and their advocates were outraged, saying the board had not listened to their concerns at four public hearings and in hundreds of letters this spring.

Many said they see the board’s vote to change state regulations governing bilingual education as the first step in the dismantling of the programs in Massachusetts. They lashed out at the board for denying them input into their children’s education and setting their children up for failure in the public schools.

Sandra Alvarado, executive director of the Latino Parents Association in Boston, accused the board of “an outright, racist attack” for ignoring years of research proving the need for and success of bilingual education.

Randolph resident Oreste Joseph, co-chairman of the Massachusetts Coalition of Haitian parents, agreed: “It’s very racist, believe me.”

“The kids won’t have someone there for them,” Joseph said in an interview after the meeting. “It’s going to increase crime, there will be more dropouts and they’ll have no job skills.”

Silber, a longtime opponent of bilingual education, highlighted the need for change by reading a letter from a 16-year-old bilingual student at Dorchester High School who urged him to continue the programs the way they are. His letter, which was filled with grammatical errors and misspelled words, proves that the “objectives (of bilingual education) have not been met,” Silber said.

After the meeting, Silber denied the board’s actions were racist and said he is not “insensitive to their culture.”

“Far from being any lack of sympathy, it’s of a profound concern for their welfare,” Silber said.

Education Commissioner Robert V. Antonucci said just because board members did not agree with the parents’ comments does not mean they did not listen.

The changes the board made do not allow Quincy to try the kind of plan the Department of Education rejected last year because it would violate state law.

Massachusetts law still requires a school district to set up a transitional bilingual education program when there are at least 20 students of limited English-speaking ability with the same native language.

In transitional bilingual education, students begin learning their subjects in their native language and gradually learn English. About 44,000 Massachusetts public school students are enrolled in bilingual programs.

Quincy wants to start “multilingual classes” to provide intensive English instruction to children who speak Vietnamese, Arabic, Spanish or a number of other languages in the same classroom. If it works, school officials also would use the method for Cantonese speakers, Quincy’s largest linguistic minority, and eliminate bilingual education.

Weld’s proposal, if approved by the Legislature, would allow Quincy and other school districts to try multilingual classes or other methods of instruction.

His plan would require bilingual education only if there were 20 students in a single grade in the same language group. It also would limit the number of years a student could spend in bilingual classes.

Quincy, Randolph and Scituate are the only South Shore school districts that have transitional bilingual programs. Other districts, with fewer than 20 students in a single language group, only offer instruction in English as a second language.

Antonucci said he recommended changing some and eliminating other regulations to give school districts more flexibilty in how they run their programs.

But parents and advocates say the changes the board made yesterday do a lot of damage.

The old regulations require that there be one bilingual teacher for every 18 students. When the new regulations go into effect in August, the maximum student-teacher ratio will be an average of 20-to-1.

After parents complained about the proposal, the board added a rule that no class may be larger than any regular education class at the same grade level. But parents still worry that classes will be too large and individual students won’t get the attention they need.

Without the state recommending bilingual kindergarten and bilingual guidance counselors, parents fear many districts won’t offer them.

Eliminating a requirement for parent advisory councils leaves the decision of how — and how much — to involve parents up to local school districts, a change that is perhaps most upsetting to parents.

Joseph, the Randolph resident and Haitian advocate, said parents will be shut out of discussion in many communities, especially in towns like Randolph where he said relations with school officials are rocky.

“They won’t listen to the parents. They will make their own decisions for us,” Joseph said.

Randolph Superintendent Arthur Melia said the school district will continue to involve parents, but through other means, such as parent-teacher organizations or school-based councils.

“We want to have as much input from them as we can possibly can,” Melia said. “Our intention is to maintain the high levels of communication we’ve had in the past with all the various constituent groups.”

Like many other superintendents and school administrators, Melia praised the board for limiting state interference in the programs. “It’s much better to have local autonomy on these issues,” he said.

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