Let’s say you’re a kid who has just arrived in Massachusetts from another country, and you don’t speak English. When you get to school, you’ll probably be put in a special course in English for immigrant students. After that, you’ll probably go to mainstream classes in English, but get pulled out for a couple of hours each day for special help — also in English.

That’s how the majority of the 90,000 so-called English language learners in this state are taught.

At the Umana Academy in East Boston, teacher Janet Holt pulls out a group of fourth graders from math class and meets with them at a cluster of tables in the hallway.

“So, let’s take a moment and talk about what we’re working on today. Can anyone tell me what you’re working on in math?" she says.

A girl in glasses is the only one to answer. They’re working on rounding numbers to the nearest thousandth.

Holt fishes around in a bag for a fat Crayola marker and writes on a pad of paper.

“Six thousand seven hundred. Can you say that?” Holt asks. 

The class repeats in unison.

“Awesome,” says Holt.

Poised for Change

The Legislature passed two bills this summer that could make it easier for schools to teach students in their native language. It would be the latest shift in a debate going back decades about the best way to teach newcomer students. Do you immerse them in English, or do you teach them how to read and write first in their native language?

Rosalie Pedalino Porter is on the English-first side of the debate. She lives in Western Massachusetts and chairs the board of ProEnglish, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for laws making English the official language of the U.S. and ending bilingual education. She was one of the original supporters of the English-only mandate in Massachusetts.

“Removing that mandate opens up the education of these children to the possibility of mischief,” Porter said. “And I have seen enough mischief in the state of Massachusetts over the years to know it’s not a good situation.”

By mischief, Porter means students would stay in bilingual education for many years. And even bilingual education supporters agree there were problems.

“My opinion was there was very loose oversight,” Miren Uriarte, retired professor of human services from UMass Boston, said. “One of the criticisms was there was no uniform implementation of transitional bilingual education.”

Exceptions to the Rule

The problems implementing bilingual education helped opponents pass a referendum banning the practice in 2002. Lawmakers made an exception for so-called dual language programs, in which elementary students learn half the time in, say, Spanish or Mandarin, and the rest of the time in English. Those programs have been popular with some immigrants and parents looking to get their children ahead in the global economy.

There’s another way to get around the state’s ban on bilingual education. The city of Framingham has gone that route.

About 20 fifth graders sit around tables in their class at Wilson Elementary School in Framingham. Their eyes are on Vanete Valky as she moves around the room explaining exponents.

Ex-po-en-te,” she says, drawing out the syllables in Portuguese.

She holds up a thin rectangular Lego piece, which represents 10. And then a wider one: 10 to the second power.

These Brazilian students will spend three or four years learning most of their subjects – math, science, social studies – in Portuguese. When they speak English well enough, they’ll transition to mainstream classes all in English. 

Framingham can teach these students in Portuguese by going through what officials describe as an arduous process of getting waivers from the English-only law.

“We will gladly do it because we know it is the best instructional model for these students,” Genoveffa Grieci, director of Framingham’s bilingual education department, said. “Our goal is language acquisition, but our goal is also getting students ready for college. Our goal is getting students ready for a career."

Easier in Your Native Language

Recent research seems to support what Framingham has been doing. Stanford Education professor Sean Reardon tracked students through elementary and middle school in a large school district in California, and found those in bilingual education fared “as well or better” than students who were in English-only classes. That was on a number of outcomes, “including English proficiency, their scores on standardized tests and the rate at which they were reclassified from being an English-learner to being English-proficient.”

Reardon says children generally do better in bilingual education because, “it’s easier to learn content material like math or science if it’s taught in a language you understand.”

Despite this, Reardon doesn’t recommend mandating bilingual education, but he thinks it makes sense for schools to have the option. In California, where voters recently overturned an English-only law like the one in Massachusetts, schools seem to have adopted more dual language programs than other types of bilingual instruction. Arizona is the only other state that still mandates English-only classes.

In Massachusetts, a legislative conference committee is reconciling two bills that would give teachers more options than English-only immersion and dual language programs. The Senate bill goes further in lifting the restrictions than the House bill. It’s not clear whether Gov. Baker would support any change to the ban on bilingual education, but lawmakers almost unanimously supported the House and Senate bills.

Production assistant Tristan Cimini contributed to this report.

WGBH News' coverage of K-12 education is made possible with support from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.