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How Can Being Bilingual Be an Asset for White Students and a Deficit for Immigrants?

Katie Cardamone teaches second grade in the Mendon-Upton Regional School District, about 40 miles southwest of Boston. Barely 1 percent of Mendon’s population is Latino and about 2 percent of Upton’s is, but Cardamone teaches her entire class in Spanish. According to Cardamone, about 250 predominantly white families across the district have signed their children up for the immersion program, recognizing the value of becoming bilingual and of starting the process in kindergarten.

In the Austin Independent School District in Texas, administrators recognize that same value for their native Spanish speakers who enter the public schools without English fluency. In 50 elementary schools, according to officials, these students now take classes in Spanish and English with an ultimate goal of achieving academic proficiency in both languages by middle school.

Both programs aim to make students fully bilingual. Both feature instruction in two languages. But a program like Austin’s would be against the law in Massachusetts. A 2002 ballot initiative, supported by 61 percent of voters, made English-only instruction mandatory for students who need to learn the language (unless they get a special waiver). The law resulting from the ballot initiative makes an exception for programs that teach in two languages — but only if they serve native English speakers.