Betty Curley is a third grade teacher in the McAvinnue School in Lowell, Massachusetts. “I have 22 students in my classroom this year and 15 of those students are Hispanic students, second language learners and their primary language is Spanish and then I have 4 Indian students who speak Gujarati, and then I have 4 or 5 Komee speaking students,” Curley says.
For almost ten years the school offered bilingual education for children from the city’s growing immigrant population. This year things are very different. “We’re calling this a sheltered English immersion classroom and basically what that means is that I am sheltering the English for them.”
In other words, she can clarify an idea in the native language of a student, but according to the law, the class must be taught in English. Curley says, “I also try to lower the rate in which I speak because I think many times when we’re talking with native language people our speech is quick, it’s rapid, and we don’t notice it, and second language learners need for you to speak slower so that they can internalize what it is that you’re saying and give them the opportunity to translate that information in their own mind.”
Betty Curley understands the frustration of students struggling with a new language. As the child of Cuban immigrants, she didn’t speak English when she first went to school. And because she wasn’t speaking, she says, her teachers thought she was learning disabled. That experience, she says, motivates her to teach those struggling with the language. But there’s a problem. The new law only gives English learners a year to get up to speed, after that, it’s either sink or swim.
Liz Conroy is the school’s principal. Although she’d rather continue with bilingual education, she thinks talented teachers will figure out ways to meet the needs of their English learning students. Principal Conroy says, “approximately 50 percent of our students are coming from homes where English is not spoken, the school has to meet the needs of the students that are coming in that have English language limited abilities to be able to function, to be educated in a mainstream setting.”
For now, Betty Curley is willing to give it a shot, but she wonders how the end of the year assessments will turn out.
“It is different, it’s very different, but it’s doable. I think it’s doable. I’m trying to remain very positive about it until is see data that shows me otherwise.”