First in a series of occasional articles chronicling one family's experience with English immersion.
Inside the East Boston home of the Martinez family, the first day of school unfurled with its usual tumult of uniforms that needed ironing, children who needed waking, and school registration papers that needed finding.
But Carmen Martinez knew that this school year would be anything but usual. Her youngest son, Alonso, would enter first grade at the James Otis Elementary School. His brother, Yovanny, would switch from that school and enter a new one.
And the entire family would take a big step of its own, trying, along with thousands of other immigrant families, to navigate the uncharted territory of life and learning in the era of English immersion.
Until now, Martinez, an immigrant from a tiny Mexican village who speaks little English and can read even less, had been able to help her sons with their homework. She had been able to review school notices and report cards, usually sent home in English and in Spanish. She had been able to talk with teachers at school conferences and to advocate for her children in her own language.
But this year, Alonso and Jovanny would no longer be in bilingual education programs. Instead, as required by the state's new English immersion law, they would be taught almost entirely in English.
Carmen Martinez knew that the change would affect more than her children's classes. It would seep into every cranny of their world. It would influence the language they used on the playground and at home. It would even alter her role as a parent.
So, on Sept. 3, after she dropped off her two sons for their first day of school and drove home, past the bodegas selling arroz y frijoles (rice and beans) and the botanicas stocked with santos (saints) and spiritual oils, Martinez's thoughts were tangled with worries.
How would she be able to help Alonso, a solemn-faced, tousle-haired 6-year-old who yearns for gold stars from his teachers, if she could not understand the words in his textbooks? How could she make sure that Yovanny, a mischievous 10-year-old with learning disabilities, was getting the right attention if she could not communicate with his teachers at Samuel Adams Elementary School?
And how could she learn English quickly enough to prevent language differences from driving a wedge between her children and their education or between herself and her children?
50,000 face immersion
For more than three decades, students in Massachusetts who knew little or no English, like Alonso and Jovanny, were placed in bilingual education classes. They studied in their native language and eased into English over a few years. That's how thousands of children, including the boys' older brother, Edgar, now 15 and a 10th-grader at East Boston High School, learned English.
But last fall, voters approved a ballot referendum requiring public schools to teach English by immersion, a system in which immigrant students spend a year learning almost entirely in English before moving to mainstream classrooms.
Massachusetts, the first state to introduce a bilingual education law in 1971, was the third in the nation to see it abolished by voters, after California in 1998 and Arizona in 2000.
About 50,000 of the state's 993,000 public school students have a limited ability to speak English. Most live in large urban districts such as Boston, Chelsea, and Springfield. The greatest impact of the new law will be felt in those districts, in schools like Otis Elementary, and within immigrant families.
"All I want is for my children to learn as much as they can, even if it's all in English," said Martinez, 39, who shares Alonso's shy smile and Yovanny's dancing eyes. "But, what I'm afraid is that their grades will fall, because I'm no longer going to be able to help them as much."
Five weeks into the school year, the effects of the new law vibrated through the lives of the Martinez famly in homework sessions in the family living room, at the first open house of the year at the Otis School, during a first-grade reading lesson in Room 10, and at an afterschool English class for parents, which Carmen Martinez attends every day.
Martinez felt the impact less than an hour into the school year. That morning, she wandered the unfamiliar hallways of the Adams School, struggling to find the right classroom for Yovanny, who had been transferred to the school because of its programs for students with learning disabilities.
There, Martinez could not find anyone who spoke Spanish. She fished for the right words in English. Where is the fourth-grade line? she asked. Yovanny Martinez, where does he go?
One teacher checked a list of students and found Yovanny's name. In a third-grade class.
That wasn't right, Martinez tried to explain. Her son was supposed to be in fourth grade. The teacher pointed to the list. Martinez tried again to explain. The teacher again pointed.
Martinez felt her stomach tighten. Finally, frustrated and hampered by her own inability to communicate, she reluctantly left Yovanny in the third-grade line. Later, she promised herself, she would straighten this out.
Challenge of homework
It was just after 5 p.m. on a Monday night, when the shadows of a late September evening were beginning to slide across the Oriental rug in the Martinez living room.
Es la hora de tarea, Carmen Martinez reminded her two sons. It's homework time.
Alonso dragged his schoolbag along the floor and plopped onto the rug. He pulled out a math workbook, grabbed a pencil, and settled on his stomach. He was ready to work.
Yovanny perched on the edge of a sofa, next to his father, Genaro.
Their mother, crouched on the rug beside Alonso, juggled her attention between the boys and 1-year-old Ariana, the baby of the family.
Alonso's assignment that day called for the first-grader to draw seven of one object and five of another and then add the two numbers together. Martinez leaned over her son's shoulder and, using the English she is struggling to learn, haltingly read the words of his math problem: I-have-how-many-of-each?
Carmen told her son in Spanish: You have to draw seven "cartas, sobres," cards, envelopes. Alonso painstakingly began to draw seven tiny envelopes with his pencil.
Carmen looked at the next line. "It says to draw five of something," she said. But the something was a word she did not recognize. She asked for help from her older son. "Yovanny, que es esta palabra? No la entiendo." What's this word? I don't understand it.
Yovanny, who was in deep thought as he labored to write sentences using new vocabulary words, didn't know it either.
Her husband, Genaro, stifling yawns after a long day, knows enough English to understand his supervisors at his construction job. He did not know the word in Alonso's math book either.
"Dice que haga cinco. Esa palabra en ingles no se que es." (It says to make five of these. That's a word in English that I don't know), said Martinez, her normally calm tone edging higher.
Usually, she would ask her oldest son, Edgar, to translate. The 10th-grader is fluent in English. But that night he had been given permission to go out with his friends. There was only one thing to do, she decided. Get out the dictionary.
Yovanny got an English dictionary from his mother's red C-Span tote bag. Alonso found another, a Spanish-English version, in the kitchen.
In the background, on a television set tuned to the Spanish-language network Telemundo, a commercial advertised an English-language study course.
For nearly an hour, Yovanny and his mother scoured the dictionaries, hunting for the mysterious word.
Frustrated, Martinez turned the search into a game. "Es B-O-A-T-S. Que palabra es, Yovanny? Tu tienes que decirme. Quien le encuentra primero?"
(B-O-A-T-S. What word is that, Yovanny? You have to tell me. Let's see who finds it first.)
Yovanny won the race. He spotted the word in his dictionary. In Spanish, he told everyone, it is "barcos." Boats.
His mother jumped up with excitement and relief. Underline it, she said quickly, we don't want to lose it again.
Finally, Alonso could finish the math problem. He drew five little boats, complete with smokestacks.
Then, Yovanny took a closer look at the first part of the instructions. Something is wrong, he told his mother. Alonso was supposed to draw seven cars, not cards.
Carmen Martinez sighed. Erase it, she told Alonso, and start over again.
Education is family's goal
In El Refugio, a rancho so small that it is just a pinprick-sized dot on the map of Mexico, survival is a struggle, and most residents never get past sixth grade. Carmen and Genaro Martinez were born and raised there, but they left for the United States, she said, "so our children would have a chance to study."
Genaro entered the United States first, working illegally as a farm worker until he qualified for legal residence under an amnesty and brought Carmen and Edgar from Mexico. The younger children were born in the United States, and their mother is a legal resident.
And, in the 12 years since the Martinez family settled in East Boston, that resolve to educate their children has been the underlying theme of everything they have done.
Genaro took two jobs so they could afford to buy a modest house on Lexington Street six years ago. He spent countless Saturdays studying for his US citizenship test before finally passing on his third try; as a result, Edgar became a citizen, too. Carmen decided to stay at home until all the children were in school.
They made one mistake, said Carmen, who like her husband only finished sixth grade. For too long she did not make an effort to learn English.
At first, it was because the couple did not plan to stay in this country. Then, her husband dissuaded her from taking English classes, saying it would interfere with her responsibilities at home. But a few years ago, Martinez realized that her lack of English could hurt her children's education. Sometimes, she could not understand discussions with their teachers. Or she let school papers written in English pile up because she could not read them.
So, she promised her husband she would still have dinner waiting for him when he got home from work and enrolled in the English class at Otis. "I wish I had started studying as soon I got here. Maybe I would know English by now," Carmen said on a recent morning, as she rocked Ariana in her arms. "But I'm learning now. It's important for my children."
A barrier for parents
Until the very last minute, Otis School officials struggled over the format for the first open house of the year. Should notices be sent home to parents only in English? Should the school hold the open house in one language or several?
In the end, they decided that English-only instruction applied to students, not their parents, said principal Thomas Connelly, whose desk is piled with books on teaching English to children.
"You can't make a parent learn English, so most of the communication with parents is in their native language," Connelly said.
Many educators in the area are grappling with the same issue, saying they fear that English-only education will disconnect immigrant parents from their children's education.
"Eight hours of the child's day are not known to the parents, and the power changes within the family," said Eileen de los Reyes, senior program director for research and development at the Office of Language Learning and Support Services of the Boston School Department.
Otis, where 90 percent of the staff speaks more than one language, is one of two schools that Reyes's staff is monitoring this year. It was chosen because of its success teaching children English through bilingual education. The school once offered an Italian bilingual program and switched to Spanish and Portuguese as the East Boston community changed.
And so, at the open house, held on the chilly afternoon of Oct. 1, parent surveys were offered in Spanish, English, and Portuguese. School staff answered questions in all three languages. And the parents began to relax a little.
Inside Room 10, a second-floor classroom that smelled of fresh varnish and was awash in colorful wall decorations, Carmen Martinez waited shyly to speak with Lavinia Maguzzu, Alonso's first-grade teacher.
While Maguzzu was speaking with another parent, Alonso led his mother to one of his school projects, taped to a wall with his classmates' work. It was a cutout picture of a boat. Un barco. A flashback to the homework lesson that had given them so much trouble earlier that week.
When Martinez's turn came, she had one question for Maguzzu, and she asked it in Spanish. How was Alonso doing?
Well, answered his teacher, also in Spanish, he gets along with his classmates. He needs to practice the sounds of letters more. He's good at drawing and coloring. Beyond that, she said, it's too early to say.
Carmen Martinez was smiling when she left Magazzu's classroom, flanked by her two sons. She felt bolstered by the teacher's reassurance and relieved by the presence of Spanish.
But Carmen knew that this was merely the beginning. Nearly the entire school year still lay ahead. And there was still the mix-up at Adams Elementary, where no one spoke Spanish and Yovanny was still in a third-grade class.