FALL RIVER—Until 1968, immigrant students were thrown into class with their English-speaking counterparts and expected to learn a new language by osmosis.
That was the year bilingual education became required by federal law. Bilingual education typically separates students who speak a foreign language into classrooms where they are taught primarily in their native tongue until they are fluent in English.
Following a national trend, Fall River is about to embark on a new approach to teaching English to immigrants. Under the so-called inclusion model, a regular classroom teacher and a bilingual instructor will teach a mixture of immigrant and American students in the same classroom.
Although the class would be taught primarily in English, the bilingual teacher would help immigrant students understand the subject, be it math or English.
Assistant School Supt. Richard Pavao said that Fall River hopes to launch the pilot program in September at the Healy, Silvia and Carroll Annex Schools – schools that have large immigrant populations.
Three classes of kindergarten and first-grade students will be taught using this model. The foreign languages taught will be Portuguese, Spanish and Khmer.
The goal, Pavao said, is to eventually teach the class in both languages. Primary instruction would take place in English, but a certain portion of the day would be taught in Spanish or Portuguese. For instance, the bilingual teacher might lead students in a game or song in a foreign language.
“The inclusion model allows students to share a class, a language and a culture,” Pavao said. “We hope that at the end of three years, these kids would be fully versed in both languages.”
Pavao said parents will have the final say over whether their children participate in the pilot program.
In any event, foreign-born students will not be thrown into the inclusion classes without some previous exposure to English.
“This is not a total immersion program,” Pavao said. “These students have some basic English. Many of our kids have already had a year of English (by first grade). Plus, children at that young age learn a foreign language very quickly.”
Educators say two-way programs, as they are also called, could have offer some additional benefits in Massachusetts, as schools struggle with the escalating costs of bilingual education and a new state law that will mandate that high school graduates be fluent in a foreign language in four years.
Critics of traditional bilingual education say immigrant students fall behind their English-speaking peers and then have little chance to catch up. They also fear that the separate-but-equal approach marginalizes immigrant students in a way that only underlines their isolation from the mainstream.
As the cost of bilingual education soars, lawmakers have discussed cutting the program or making students return to the regular classroom after a year.