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
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
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
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. …