Boston: Budget woes may dim a bilingual beacon: Hern ández school could lose citywide status

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Wed May 13 13:59:09 UTC 2009

Budget woes may dim a bilingual beacon: Hernández school could lose
citywide status
By James Vaznis, Globe Staff  |  May 13, 2009

Ticco Robinson, a science teacher at the Rafael Hernández School in
Roxbury, held up two water-soaked lima beans that had doubled in size
overnight, eliciting a chorus of "whoa" from the entranced
third-graders. The students then began guessing the weight of the
beans in grams: "Ocho?" "Diez?" "Veinticinco?" For more than 30 years,
this public school has taught science, math, and other subjects in
Spanish and English, drawing parents from across the city with its
track record of helping students who speak one of those languages
become fluent in both while maintaining high test scores.

But much of the city, including many children already enrolled at the
Hernández, could be blocked from this multicultural experience a year
from September. To save on busing costs, Superintendent Carol R.
Johnson has proposed restricting access to the Hernández to only a few
neighborhoods. The move highlights the precarious balancing act the
superintendent must perform as she attempts to shorten bus routes in a
district sprinkled with too few good-quality schools and specialized

The Hernández - one of three schools that teach in Spanish and English
- is the only one open to students from every Boston neighborhood.
Stripping Hernández of citywide status, along with shrinking the
student assignment areas for the other two schools, would leave many
neighborhoods, including heavily Latino East Boston, without access to
any such program. All the while, parents around the city and activists
for immigrant students have been calling for more of these programs,
believing they can improve achievement among English-language
learners. The programs also offer English-speaking students a golden
opportunity to learn another language, they say.

"It's very worrisome that East Boston, which has the largest number of
Latinos, would not have access to a two-way language program," said
Miren Uriarte, a research associate at the Mauricio Gastón Institute
for Latino Community Development and Public Policy at the University
of Massachusetts at Boston. "Denying the masses is not good policy
unless there is a clear intent to develop more two-way language

Johnson said in an interview that stripping all elementary and middle
schools of citywide status is necessary to release the district from
the obligation of busing charter and private school students in those
grades citywide, all of which could save the district about $1.3
million annually. She stressed that she is committed to creating more
dual-language programs, adding that the Dever School in Dorchester is
starting a program this fall with 40 kindergarten students. Dever,
however, is in a zone that already has a dual-language program.

"We are working with East Boston," Johnson said.

The spur for Johnson's proposed restriction on the Hernández School is
Mayor Thomas M. Menino's request last year that she carve $10 million
out of the district's transportation budget, which covers the cost of
ferrying students across the city's three sprawling school assignment
zones. The system provides families with an array of choices and
access to at least one dual-language program, but means that many
buses arrive at schools at least half empty, according to a Globe

In February, Johnson proposed dividing the city into five smaller
geographic zones, which encountered resistance from community
activists and some parents who worried about reduced access to
high-performing schools. Johnson estimated the overall plan could save
between $8.5 million and $10.4 million.

But the savings would come at a price for the Hernández: Some 56
percent of the approximately 400 students reside outside the proposed
attendance boundaries. Johnson may allow those students to stay, but
not provide their transportation.

It is unclear whether the seven-member School Committee, appointed by
Menino, will support the Hernández change. The Rev. Gregory Groover,
the board's chairman, and Helen Dájer, another member, have questioned
the proposal, although neither has officially taken a position. The
board will vote on all transportation changes next month, after
holding community meetings.

"It's a program that's proven itself and a model we should replicate
as much as we can, as desired by neighborhoods," said Dájer, who has
three children who attended the school.

The Hernández is among more than 300 schools nationwide, including a
handful in Massachusetts, that teach in two languages. Such schools
have grown in popularity even as advocates for restrictions on
immigrant rights have successfully limited the teaching of subjects in
languages other than English in some states. In Massachusetts, where
voters approved dismantling bilingual education for English language
learners seven years ago, the Legislature allowed schools like the
Hernández to persist because of its dual mission.

Ideally, these schools are evenly divided between students who are
native Spanish speakers and native English speakers. At the Hernández,
about 66 percent of students did not speak English as their first
language; 87 percent of the student body is Latino, according to the

The Hernández, which opened in 1971 to serve the city's growing Puerto
Rican community, introduced dual-language instruction when the
facility was relaunched four years later as a citywide magnet school.
The switch enabled the Hernández to preserve its founding mission
while complying with court-ordered desegregation. The program has
proven popular; more than 200 students are on a waiting list this

Students in lower grades receive instruction in Spanish three days a
week and in English two days a week, while literacy classes are in
their native languages. Students in the upper grades rotate languages
every two weeks.

"It's not your run-of-the-mill school," said Margarita Muñiz, the
principal. "It requires a lot of work and dedication."

In a third-grade science class, students said they liked learning
another language.

"When I came here, I never thought I would learn Spanish; it sounded
so different," said Shaina Jewett-Wolf of Jamaica Plain.

Across the room, Amy Ortiz said she knew little English in kindergarten.

"My parents only speak Spanish," Amy, of Dorchester, said in perfect
English. "Sometimes I translate for my mom."
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