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Marcela García

Sinking in an English-only classroom

Every few weeks when I stay late at work I chat with a young man named Juan Carlos Sánchez, who works as a janitor in my office. At 19, he is earnest and thoughtful and hopes to graduate soon from East Boston High.

He aspires to go to college. But he has one major impediment: He doesn’t speak English. Even though he is “immersed” in English every day at school, he is still struggling to learn the language.

Arriving here a year ago from Guatemala, he has been left to sink or swim in English-only classrooms. Juan Carlos gives me the impression he is barely keeping his head above water at school. “I wake up stressed every day thinking about school and the upcoming biology test,” he told me recently in Spanish. It’s obvious he is intelligent, has a proclivity for math, and likely would excel if he could learn in a dual-language environment, one that helps him transition into an English-speaking classroom.


“I can’t carry a full conversation in English. I’m completely lost in classes like biology, where I sit next to English-speaking students,” he says, adding that despite the three daily hours of ESL Level 1 classes he takes, he’s not up to speed in English-only classrooms.

In the sink-or-swim scenario, Juan Carlos clearly could use a life jacket, yet he may end up being another victim of a 2002 statewide referendum — Question 2 — that gutted bilingual education in Massachusetts. The new law mandated “sheltered” English immersion, with more limited help for students in their native language. As a consequence, there are thousands of students like Juan Carlos who are floundering in Massachusetts schools, their potential undermined by a law that is increasingly out of synch with the demographic reality in Massachusetts.

The state’s population is growing on the strength of immigrants, and common sense would suggest that schools have the policies and resources that reflect the importance of nurturing non-natives into productive citizens. As the immersion law went into effect, the foreign-born population in Massachusetts continued to boom, jumping by 27 percent between 2000 and 2011 to 980,000. As Massachusetts becomes more multicultural, it is handcuffed by an educational law that serves to deny its linguistic richness while leaving more kids in educational darkness.


In cities like Boston, Lawrence, and Springfield, the consequences of the English immersion policies are profound. In the Boston Public Schools, about 17,000 students are so-called English language learners, and 46 percent of the total student population speaks a language other than English. Because of the failure to help immigrant students reasonably “swim” into an English learning environment, a disproportionate number of students drop out. According to a 2009 report that explored the academic outcomes of ELLs in the Boston Public Schools, the dropout rate for high-school students whose first language is not English was 6.5 percent for the 2003 academic year, the year before English immersion went into effect. By 2006 it was 9.8 percent.

It gets worse: Statewide, only 56 percent of English language learners graduate, according to 2010-2011 figures by the US Department of Education.

Some lawmakers on Beacon Hill have long recognized the need to restore some elements of bilingual education, and House and Senate bills await action that would provide schools with high populations of ELLs with more educational flexibility. In essence, the proposal would overturn the English-only rule and permit a range of bilingual options in the classroom. More students could learn in their native languages while gaining competency in English and not be washed out of the educational system without a high school degree.


“We cannot afford to fail another generation of English language learners,” state Representative Jeffrey Sanchez told me recently. “I’ve been filing this legislation for the past 10 years, and it’s time for it to pass.”

Immigrants have always helped Massachusetts grow. There’s no good reason Juan Carlos can’t be one of them. On a recent weekend, he picked up some extra hours at the janitorial company he works for every day for four hours after school. The job was in Northeastern University.

“When I was cleaning that weekend in Northeastern, the whole time I was imagining what it would feel like to be there as a student. I saw myself there,” he said.

Massachusetts is missing the boat if students like Juan Carlos don’t have a better chance to realize their potential.

Marcela García is a special correspondent at Telemundo Boston and a contributor to the Boston Business Journal.