Conversion to Immersion ; Should the Education of Immigrants Be Entirely in English? as Voters in Two States Weigh in, the Monitor Looks at a Massachusetts City That's Just Beginning a Conversion to Immersion

By Seth Stern writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, November 5, 2002 | Go to article overview

Conversion to Immersion ; Should the Education of Immigrants Be Entirely in English? as Voters in Two States Weigh in, the Monitor Looks at a Massachusetts City That's Just Beginning a Conversion to Immersion


Seth Stern writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


In Gladys Colon's second-grade class, every visible word - from the posters describing the seasons to the label on the aquarium - is in English. So are nearly all the books on the shelves.

And when students raise their hands to offer sentences with the word "tall," they speak in English as well.

In fact, the only hint that this class of 20 students at Guilmette Elementary School is composed entirely of foreign-born speakers is their accents.

Just a year ago, the Spanish language dominated in many of the kindergarten through second-grade classrooms in the former mill town of Lawrence, Mass. But under a new approach instituted this fall, those children now hear only a sprinkling of their native tongue during the school day. Indeed, foreign languages could soon vanish from most of Lawrence's bilingual classrooms.

The shift to "structured immersion" has been a radical one for this hardscrabble city of 72,000, where the median income is half that of the rest of the state and two-thirds of residents speak a foreign language at home. And it has put Lawrence at the center of a national debate: how best to ensure that children whose native language is not English achieve the fluency that is increasingly essential to future success. The spotlight on the school district has intensified this fall because voters in Massachusetts, as well as in Colorado, will decide today on a ballot initiative to require that all schools give nonnative English speakers a year of intensive English instruction followed by a quick transition to mainstream classrooms.

Both ballot initiatives are spearheaded by Ron Unz, the California businessman who has already pushed through similar measures in his home state and in Arizona.

Massachusetts was the first state to adopt a bilingual-education law, three decades ago. Non-English speakers have been taught mostly in their native languages for up to three years. The assumption is that learning in a familiar language makes it easier to pick up subjects such as math and science.

But supporters of the initiatives under consideration today contend that transitional bilingual education, as the existing practice is known, has failed. It has churned out a generation of students, they charge, who can neither speak English well nor absorb the subject material needed to graduate from high school.

In Lawrence, where about 14 percent of the public schools' 12,000 students currently qualify for bilingual courses and where test scores on state achievement exams rank near the bottom, there's been relatively little dispute about the need for a more successful approach to teaching every child English. "We have a moral and ethical responsibility to make children proficient in the language of this country," says Wilfredo Laboy, Lawrence's school superintendent.

After taking the job in 2000, Mr. Laboy created a task force to review the district's bilingual program. The task force found that the amount of English students encountered in Lawrence varied by school and even by classroom.

In response, the district instituted structured immersion last year as a pilot program for kindergarten through second grade, and expanded it this fall.

Some foreign language allowed

With their parents' permission, about half of bilingual students were placed in structured-immersion classrooms, where 80 to 90 percent of instruction is supposed to be conducted in English.

The approach doesn't entirely rule out using another language. Teachers instruct in Spanish in whatever subject they choose during a single 45-minute block. Otherwise, they are directed to limit the use of Spanish to clarifying concepts. That doesn't mean translating lessons, though.

Every teacher ata given grade level is reading from the same English script during a 90-minute reading block each morning.

In Fred Confalone's first-grade class, students sit neatly in rows on a brightly colored rug covered with numbers and letters.

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