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Language 'Immersion' Method Tested To Replace Bilingual Ed.

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The board of education for the Dade County public schools, the nation's fourth-largest school system and prominent in bilingual education because of its large population of Spanish-speaking students, has voted to try a new pilot program that could lead to a shift away from the ''transitional" bilingual method.

Currently, Miami's nearly 25,000 Spanish-speaking students are gradually integrated into regular classes over a three-year "transitional" period, during which they attend 45-minute "core" classes taught in their native language.

Under the pilot program, a sample of 150 students will be taught for two years in the so-called "total-immersion" method, which places students directly into classes taught in English and eliminates the core periods taught in native languages. The method also offers supplemental intensive instruction in English, according to school officials.

The Dade County public schools used the method during the 1960's, the officials said. But in 1976, the government initiatied the so-called Lau remedies to ensure districts' compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court's 1974 decision in Lau v. Nichols.

That decision found that non-English-speaking students' civil rights may be jeopardized if they are not offered special classes in their own language. The Dade County schools were ordered to switch to the transitional method by the U.S. Education Department's office for civil rights (ocr).

When the two-year pilot program ends, school officials will compare the relative educational attainments of the children who have been taught in the immersion method with those of students in the transi-tional program. At that point, board members said, they hope to resolve the year-long debate they have had over which method works best.

"We'll put this problem to rest at last," said the board's vice-chairman, Ethel K. Beckham. "We'll have an answer."

But another board member, Paul L. Cejas, one of two members who voted against the pilot project, said children will be "crippled academically" if the core period of instruction in their native language is cut out. He also complained that the move will "shut the door" on his hopes for increasing the length of the core periods.

Ms. Beckham said one reason for the board's decision to experiment with a new method was the release a few days before the board meeting of some "discouraging" results of English and writing tests taken by Spanish-speaking students who had been involved in the system's transitional bilingual program.

Another impetus for the decision, board members said, was a visit last month from Esther J. Eisenhower, director of the highly-publicized program in Fairfax County, Va. that uses the immersion method. The Fairfax system gained attention when ocr conceded in 1980, after a five-year legal battle, that its students were not being adversely affected by the immersion strategy.

If the board does eventually adopt the immersion method, it will "take us back where we were in l976 before ocr ordered the change," said Ralph F. Robinet, the Dade system's director of bilingual foreign-language education.

It could also signal the beginning of a shift among major school districts with large non-English-speaking student populations away from transitional bilingual education--a shift that its advocates have especially feared, they say, ever since education officials in the Reagan Administration withdrew proposed bilingual-edu-cation regulations and suggested they would not prevent school districts from choosing their own methods of teaching foreign-language students.

Last week, specialists in the field said they were worried that other major districts might follow Miami and "jump on the bandwagon of the immersion method," and several said they doubted the method would work in urban schools serving disadvantaged students.

"Immersion is looked upon as a panacea to solve all the problems of bilingual schools," said Ramon L. Santiago, director of the Georgetown University Bilingual Education Service. "It's oversold."

The immersion method, which originated in Canada, has only been tried with middle-class children, he added.

But Mr. Santiago said he did not think the move by the Dade County school board signaled the end of bilingual teaching there. "It's not a break in the dike," he said. "Dade County has been a pioneer in bilingual education. I don't think they're going to throw it all away."

He said he preferred to look at the decision as a healthy sign--"of a successful school district that doesn't just sit on its laurels."

Program May Start Next Fall

If ocr approves it, Miami's pilot program will start next fall in heavily Hispanic schools and will involve three groups of 150 kindergarten and 1st-grade children. The first group will continue with the teaching method now used--about one third of their instruction in their home language each day, with the rest in English, according to Mr. Robinet.

A second group will have the same schedule, but the classes will be smaller, to see if that makes a difference, Mr. Robinet said.

The third group of students will have only 30 minutes a day of instruction in their native language. Science, social studies, and mathematics will be taught only in English, Mr. Robinet said.

At the end of two years, the proficiency of the three groups will be compared. The cost of the experiment will be $458 per child, compared with $389 per child for the present program.

The principal difference between the Miami setting and the Fairfax setting, where the immersion system is said to have succeeded well, is that Miami's foreign-speaking population is almost entirely Hispanic and many students live in low-income pockets of the city where Spanish is spoken, according to Gilbert J. Cuevas, assistant director of Florida's National Origin Desegregation Assistance Center.

The Fairfax foreign students speak many more different languages and come from suburban, middle-class homes, he added. However a Fairfax schools' spokesman said most of the students are refugees from low-income homes.

The Dade County school board's endorsement of the pilot program this month reversed a 4-3 decision just two weeks earlier that had defeated a similar proposal. In between the two meetings, however, two test results were released which swung the vote of at least one member.

One test, called the College Level Academic Skills Test, a new test given in Florida only to college sophomores, found that Hispanic students at Dade County Community College (many of whom come from the Dade County public schools), scored "substantially less well" in reading and writing skills than other students, said John Lozak, dean of institutional research at the community college.

A second test, a Stanford Achievement Test that the Miami schools volunteered to take part in as a sample group, showed similarly poor results among Hispanic students, board members said.

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