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Language Program May Get Reprieve Thursday, May 15, 2003
Eun Lee Koh Boston Globe
Town may keep bilingual program

Although the state House of Representatives has passed an amendment that would keep two-way bilingual education programs intact, Framingham educators are cautious about celebrating until the final English immersion bill passes the Legislature and is signed into law.

The House amendment would allow two-way bilingual programs to continue in districts such as Framingham, which teaches native English and Spanish speakers all subjects in both languages from kindergarten through Grade 12.  The goal of two-way programs, also in place in schools in Boston, Cambridge, and Lawrence, is that students become proficient in two languages by the program's end.

The two-way model will otherwise be disallowed for pupils under the age of 10 under the terms of last fall's statewide ballot initiative, where Massachusetts voters effectively ended bilingual education in favor of one-year, all-English classes for nonnative speakers.

"I'm supportive of any flexibilty to two-way programs," said Susan McGilvray-Rivet, the director of bilingual education programs for Framingham schools, adding that she did not want to comment specifically on the amendment until the final bill is signed into law.  "There could still be changes. We don't know what the law will look like, so I don't want to react too soon."

McGilvray-Rivet said many parents of students enrolled in the two-way program, which operates in English and Spanish, have expressed concern that their children may not be able to take part in it come September.

The two-way model is touted by some as being compatible with the English-immersion movement.

"This was the only type of English learning that was not challenged, but embraced by everyone," said state Representative Marie St. Fleur, a Boston Democrat, who sponsored the bill with state Representative Peter Larkin, a Pittsfield Democrat.  "I like to think of it as `two-way immersion.'  We want to make sure that this program does not get obliterated by the new law."

But backers of the English-immersion initiative criticized the House amendment for watering down what they describe as a "resounding voter mandate."

"This is not going to fly," said Rosalie P. Porter, chairwoman of the state's English for the Children initiative.  "This would essentially overturn the English-immersion law.  It kills the main thrust of the work we've been doing."

In the November election, 68 percent of voters approved ballot Question 2, which asked Massachusetts residents whether they wanted to end the state's 30-year bilingual education program, in which non-English-speaking children learned subjects in their native languages, then gradually made the transition into regular courses.  California entrepreneur Ron Unz, who was successful in ending bilingual education in California and Arizona, partially bankrolled the ballot initiative to replace bilingual education with immersion in Massachusetts.

Under the initiative, which would go into effect in the fall, pupils under age 10, regardless of their native language, would be placed in mandatory one-year English classes.  Exceptions would be provided for those over 10 and children with learning disabilities or special needs.

The Unz initiative, as passed by voters, blocks native Spanish speakers under the age of 10 not yet fluent in English from participating in Framingham's two-way program.  This essentially would end the programs for the younger pupils in town, because an equal number of native Spanish and native English speakers are necessary for the program's success, McGilvray-Rivet said.

Since November, McGilvray-Rivet has been overhauling Framingham's extensive network of bilingual education programs, which included the traditional program in which immigrant students were taught in both their native language and English, an English as a Second Language program, and the two-way program.  This summer, bilingual education teachers will take intensive graduate-level courses on how to teach immigrant students in an English-only classroom, she said.

Porter, a former bilingual educator in the Newton schools, said participation in foreign language classes must be limited to students already proficient in English.

She said the initiative's goals are to ensure that immigrant children learn English as quickly as possible, so they can be integrated into regular classrooms.  She feared that districts statewide would begin calling their programs "two-way" as a method to avoid creating true English-only classrooms.

"Not enough research has been done to show that these two-way programs benefit minority language children," she said, "but a lot of research has been done to show that English immersion works."

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