In the city of Lawrence, 82 percent of students are non-native English speakers. The city's superintendent of schools is Wilfredo Laboy who is Puerto Rican, but raised in New York. "In 1974, 1975," Laboy says, "I would have cut my wrists and poured out my blood for bilingual education." But times have changed and now Laboy believes that after 30 years, bilingual education in Massachusetts has failed.
Recent MCAS scores emphasize the need for a change in bilingual education. Test scores released last month showed 43 percent of limited English fourth-graders failing the English exam. That is more than both regular students and students with disabilities combined. Fifty-three percent of limited English fourth-graders failed the math portion. So this year, Laboy has overhauled his bilingual education program to teach by immersion whereby students are taught 80 or 90 percent in English with a Spanish paraprofessional in the classroom.
But this approach is problematic to Medford assistant principal and former Lawrence school administrator, Graciela Trilla. Trilla is also Puerto Rican and raised in New York. She says educators today have a responsibility to commit the resources to educate bilingual students dually, in both English and their native language. "Higher levels of English proficiency are gained and higher levels of academic achievement are gained," Trilla says, "when a strong foundation has been established in the native language." Whatever the resolve, it will likely be in the hands of voters as two vastly different bilingual education ballot initiatives head to the voting booth next November.