WGBH Radio’s Callie Crossley Discusses Bilingual Education, Immigration with Wellesley Professor on “Under the Radar”

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August 15, 2017

The Massachusetts legislature recently passed a bill that will give state school districts more flexibility in choosing what methods they use to educate students who are learning English. Schools now are required to teach English language learners through “sheltered immersion,” in which classes are taught primarily in English. The new bill would allow districts to submit their own plans to state education officials for approval.

In 2002, Massachusetts voters passed a ballot law that required all public school students (with limited exceptions) to be placed in English-speaking classrooms and taught all subjects in English. The new law will replace that one.

Irene Mata, Barbara Morris Caspersen Associate Professor of Humanities and associate professor of women’s and gender studies at Wellesley, was recently asked her opinion of the bill on WGBH Radio’s Under the Radar  with host Callie Crossley.

Referring to the time span between the 2002 law and the one just passed by the legislature, Mata said, “We now have this gap of 15 years. And one thing that makes me really sad is thinking about those students who were lost along the way, because we know that if you put a child who doesn’t speak the dominant language in a classroom, they are at a disadvantage from the very first day. Not allowing them to understand concepts, [or] to learn at their own pace, and to learn the language while they’re learning the concepts is, I think, a real disservice.”

Advocates of the bill, including Mata, point out that it’s unfair to expect students to learn complex issues in math or science, for example, when they don’t speak, read, or understand English.

Mata described growing up in El Paso, Texas, when bilingual education was the norm. “Our schools understood that even though we were in the U.S., many of us had been raised with Spanish as our first language,” she said. “So there was this real concerted effort to figure out, how do these kids learn? How can we help them learn English, while at the same time allowing them to stay on top of the curriculum we’re trying to teach them?”

Mata said it was very effective to sit in a classroom where the teachers would teach students in Spanish, but also give homework in English. She said that the slow immersion into English helped her become an advanced reader in her native Spanish as well as in English.

Mata was joined on Crossley’s program by Julio Ricardo Varela, co-host of the “In The Thick” podcast, Latino USA contributor, and founder of Latino Rebels, who commented on the benefits of being bilingual. “I grew up bilingual in Puerto Rico, and I am thankful every day, because my career has earned me more as a bilingual speaker,” he said.

The panelists then discussed a recent decision by the Supreme Judicial Court, the highest court in Massachusetts, regarding an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) case involving a man subjected to a deportation order to Cambodia. The court ruled that state court officers do not have the authority to detain a person suspected of being in the United States illegally if that person is not facing criminal charges. This is the first statewide ruling in the nation on the issue.

“One of the interesting things about this ruling is that it’s making a very clear distinction about what is a civil matter and what is a criminal matter,” Mata said. “And that’s different than the way we tend to think about immigration, because we’ve been conditioned to think about undocumented immigrants as just lawbreakers, and see their presence in the country is a criminal act.”

Other topics addressed on the program included an analysis of the recent attack on a Los Angeles street vendor that reverberated nationwide and why the National Council of La Raza is changing its name to Unidos US.