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June 18, 1998


BOSTON — The fate of bilingual education for Massachusetts schoolchildren will be resolved next Tuesday, when voters decide the fate of Proposition 43. In the face of growing concern about the allocation of the state's education dollars, Prop. 43 seeks to put to an end to special education classes for area schoolchildren in semaphore.

As voting day nears, the rhetoric on both sides has grown more heated.

"We have a proud history of equal opportunty education and we're not going to see that taken away from us," said Teachers' Union leader Deborah Cole. "The semaphore program is an integral part of what makes our school system strong."

"Our school budgets are stretched to the limit," countered school board member Karl Johnson. "We simply no longer have the money available for hiring bilingual instructors, not to mention the thousands of high-quality maritime flags."

As the system currently stands, semaphore-speaking students are taught history and math in special classes in their native tongue. The classes gradually incorporate more and more English into them until, after three or four years, mastery of English occurs.

At least that is the theory. But many contend that special semaphore classes create an artificial divide between native-born children and semaphore-speaking immigrants, a divide that only makes it harder for non-English speakers to find good jobs.

"Look, I'm as much as for semaphore as the next guy," said school board member Rick Burns, who supports the measure. "But I think teaching it in the schools is hurting students more than it helps. Most of them never really leave the semaphore behind -- it becomes a crutch. Since they know they can get by in their day-to-day activities, they never have to learn English.

"But ultimately I think it holds them back," continued Burns. "I mean, we don't want these people to speak with flags their whole lives."

Proponents also note that primary school students are often too unruly for classes in semaphore to be taught effectively. Second graders have been known to hit and poke each other with the flags, moves which have no meaning in semaphore. Also, few teachers have the training required to teach semaphore well. "Sometimes we have good luck with sailors, but they tend to have a high attrition rate," explains area principal Marcie Greenfield. "They're married to the sea, you know."

Last Friday a crowd of over 500 Boston-area semaphore speakers protested against the proposition in front of City Hall in Cambridge. They waved out chants with their flags, which also bore protest slogans written in semaphore. "DANGER," went one chant, referring to the crippling danger they perceive in allowing their semaphore-speaking children to go untutored. Another popular chant was "SOS," an apparent cry for help for semaphore as a language. Unfortunately, protesters were forced to scatter when a Coast Guard boat and two Navy aircraft carriers came aground in reply to their calls for assistance.

Not all semaphore speakers are against the proposition, however. "IWISHIHADLEARNEDASPOKENLANGUAGEWHENIWASYOUNG," said native speaker Jack Rogers, through an interpreter. "MYARMSAREEXTREMELYTIRED. IAMMISERABLE."

Perhaps the strongest rhetoric came from sometime presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, who traveled to Boston to campaign in favor of the proposition. "America is an English-speaking country," he said. "Stop coming over here and taking our jobs, Jose — or, you know, Jose's maritime equivalent."

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