By Colleen Quinn
State House News Service
---- — BOSTON — Alternating between speaking English and Spanish, mothers, teachers and students urged lawmakers yesterday to revamp a decade-old law that nearly eliminated bilingual education, arguing it has left students learning to speak English “languishing” and struggling to advance academically.
Advocates want lawmakers to revisit English language learning programs that promote dual-language instruction. In 2002, backers of a successful ballot question argued that allowing students to continue instruction in their native tongue hindered them from learning English.
The voter-approved law called for immigrant students to be immersed into English-only classrooms, with their native language used minimally and only when necessary.
During a Joint Committee on Education hearing, critics of the current system, known as Sheltered English Immersion, argued it has left students without the support they need to learn any of their subjects.
Question 2 was promoted as a way for students to learn English, but many school districts adopted a “sink or swim” methodology that has been a disaster, leaving many students “languishing” in English-only classrooms, according to Miguel Perez, from Multicultural Education, Training & Advocacy Inc.
“The current system of one-size-fits-all isn’t doing enough to make sure these English language learners are receiving the education they deserve,” Perez said.
Students learning to speak English have a higher dropout rate, with the four-year statewide graduation rate totaling 57.5 percent compared to 83 percent for other students, according to advocates. Students whose native language is not English make up 7.7 percent of the total public school student population in Massachusetts.
Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez (D-Jamaica Plain), one of the sponsors of legislation to revamp dual-language education, argued xenophobia and biases toward immigrants have stalled reforms to the current system for more than a decade.
“Here the larger picture of immigration is attached to anything that has to do with language,” Sanchez said.
The legislation is about making sure children benefit in their own school systems, Sanchez said.
Two bills - H 479 filed by Sanchez and S 225 filed by Sen. Sal Domenico (D-Everett) - would increase teaching flexibility by allowing schools with a significant population of English language learners to offer more than basic ESOL programs. The House bill is cosponsored by 18 House Democrats and the Senate bill by 15 Democrats.
The legislation would also hold schools accountable for meeting academic standards under state and federal curriculum framework by requiring districts to have annual student evaluation of individualized success plans and program extension if necessary.
All teachers and administrators who have contact with ELL students would receive training, and parent involvement would be increased with conferences, committees, and parents’ choice of curriculum.
Patricia Medeiros Landurand, who taught English language learners for many years, said it was heart-breaking to hear stories of children “who cried because they are required to take the MCAS test and they can’t even read the question.”
“What is even more devastating to me is that many of these students think they are stupid” because they are not proficient in the language, she said.
Medeiros Landurand said policymakers have failed these students, and she pleaded with lawmakers to give teachers the “flexibility to teach these children.”