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Massachusetts Voters to Decide on Bilingual Education

Along with electing Congressional representatives, governors and city council members, American voters will decide a host of local and state policies on November 5. In the northeastern state of Massachusetts, the fate of the state's bilingual education law, the nation's oldest, is on the ballot. Supporters of 'Question Number 2' want to replace bilingual programs with so-called 'immersion classes' that teach English to immigrant students in one year. Proponents of this method have successfully abolished bilingual education laws in California and Arizona, and now support an initiative in Colorado, as well as the one in Massachusetts.

Bilingual education began in the United States during the early 1970s, in response to a federal lawsuit charging public schools with failing to adequately teach immigrant children.

Sonia Nieto began her career as a public school teacher in New York, at the first bilingual school in the north-east. Skeptical at first, she says within two months she was won over to what was then a brand new idea: bilingual education, giving students basic instruction in their native language while teaching them English. Ms. Nieto, now a University of Massachusetts education professor, acknowledges that the method isn't perfect, but under the right circumstances, she says, it makes a big difference, and should continue in Massachusetts classrooms. "I think these programs are vulnerable because they are programs for poor children, for the most part, children who are in bilingual programs are children who need a great many services and supports, not fewer and so what we're doing is sometimes taking away the only lifeline that these children have," she says.

At McMahon Elementary School in Holyoke, Massachusetts, 70 percent of the students are Latino, and speak little or no English. Many come from families that still speak Spanish at home. In this third grade bilingual classroom, a Spanish-speaking teacher, Mrs. Piedro works with an English-speaking teacher, Margorie Naught, who is leading today's math lesson. "They can understand, but sometimes they feel more comfortable, speaking answering in their native language," she says.

Whether or not bilingual education teaches English well enough is at the heart of the bitter campaign being waged in Massachusetts. Jim Crawford, former editor of Education Week magazine, says the public doesn't realize the value of bilingual education.

"People in the field of bilingual education have done a lot of good things but one of the things they haven't done is to explain their mission to the public... to convey in understandable terms what's going on in these classrooms why they're using a language other than English to help kids learn English that's counter-intuitive to a lot of people they don't quite understand how that works," he says. "Bilingual education was intended to remove the language barrier to an equal education." says Rosalee Porter, is the co-chairman of the English For the Children Campaign, which supports immersion programs. "And when I entered the field I believed that this was a fine way of teaching children who come to school without a competent knowledge of English, but what I discovered in my teaching experience was that teaching in the native language all subjects, reading, writing and math everything and giving only about an hour a day or less of English instruction did not allow the students to make a quick enough transition."

Some schools in Holyoke are trying to speed up that transition.

In this first grade English immersion classroom at Sullivan Elementary School, the children, who are taught completely in english with the help of a Spanish support person, are working on a writing assignment. Their teacher, Jennette Asevado, says many of the kids were in an immersion classroom last year in kindergarten.

"They're doing very well, they're very enthusiastic about learning. They're thrilled to be here," she says. "You know we're very enthusiastic about the program. It's really going well this year. The children have come with more English since they had a kindergarten background from last year so it's been very exciting this year."

Down the hall is the kindergarten immersion classroom where the children are learning the days of the week. Their teacher says preliminary data indicates the children are doing well. She expects many of them will be well on their way to reading and writing in English by the end of the year.

When Massachusetts voters go to the polls on November 5 they will be asked to decide how immigrant children will be taught English in the public schools. As election day draws near, the rancor from both sides increases. But in the classrooms, teachers say their main job is to keep children out of the fray no matter what language they do it in.