English-Language Learners

Boston Schools Adjust To Bilingual Education Restrictions

By Mary Ann Zehr — December 10, 2003 3 min read
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Public school officials in Boston are finding ways to implement a new state law curtailing bilingual education while still encouraging teachers to help students in their native languages, a high-ranking administrator says.

J. Chris Coxon, the deputy superintendent for teaching and learning for the Boston public schools, outlined the district’s response during a session at the U.S. Department of Education’s conference last week on teaching English- language learners.

The native of Puerto Rico, who is fluent in Spanish and English, expressed both his intent to carry out the law and his disagreement with its goal of cutting back native-language support for English-language learners.

“I’m to the point where I will try [something] out and wait to see who slaps my hand because I cannot continue to deny services to these children,” Mr. Coxon said.

For instance, despite teacher layoffs in Boston, the 63,000-student district has tried to retain teachers who speak languages other than English. What’s more, officials there have assigned those teachers to classes of English-language learners who share the teachers’ native language. Thus, teachers can offer explanations in that language.

‘Good Move’

Lincoln Tamayo, the educator who led the campaign to pass the state’s anti-bilingual education law, said last week that such an arrangement is “a good move on the Boston schools’ part” and acceptable under the law.

“Our opponents made it sound that if a teacher used one word of the native language, they would be sued and lose their job,” said Mr. Tamayo, who is now the head of a private middle school in Tampa, Fla. “There are many circumstances in teaching a classroom unit where the teacher needs to use the native language to help build a bridge.”

Mr. Coxon said the school system fought “tooth and nail” with the Boston Teachers Union to keep some teachers with bilingual skills instead of others with more seniority when it laid off teachers last year.

The Boston schools still provide some transitional bilingual education classes to students whose parents sought waivers from English-immersion classes—the default for teaching English under the new law, which voters approved in a November 2002 ballot initiative.

The number of Boston students in transitional bilingual education programs, which are taught in both English and native languages, has decreased from about 8,000 in the past school year to 500 students this year.

Interestingly, said Mr. Coxon, the number of students in English-acquisition programs has dropped in the same period—from some 9,000 to 5,600. About 11,000—or 17 percent—of the district’s students are identified as having limited-English proficiency. Many of those students attend mainstream classes, he added. He said the state hasn’t provided guidance on carrying out the new law. “I get a question a week about how much of the native language can be used in the classroom,” he said. “I don’t want someone going off speaking Spanish the whole time, but I also don’t want a child to be totally lost.”

Other presentations at the conference examined what states and school districts must do to comply with another law, the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige held a Dec. 2 press conference during the gathering to announce an outreach effort to help parents of English-language learners understand their rights under the expansive new law.

The effort will include distributing posters that name “10 key benefits” for parents of English-language learners under the No Child Left Behind Act. For instance, parents have the right to be informed that their child has been identified and recommended for placement in an English-acquisition program. They can also accept or refuse such placement.

Paula Bosque, a native of Venezuela and parent of an English-language learner in the 260,900-student Broward County schools in Florida, was invited by the Education Department to attend the press conference and said that many parents are still unaware of such rights.

Many immigrant parents don’t know when their children are receiving special help at school to learn English, she said. Often, they also fail to realize that American education has more options for their children. “When you come here, you think it works like in your country,” Ms. Bosque said. “Here, you have to ask.”

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