Chicago's Bilingual Program

Falling Short of State Goals;

Chicago’s $ 100 million program to teach English to foreign-speaking students fails nearly 80 percent of the time to get them into fully English classes within limits urged by state lawmakers.

And a few of the 65,500 students in bilingual programs are spending their entire 12-year school career without getting fully into the regular program, nine years longer than the state recommends, according to Chicago Board of Education data examined by the Chicago Sun-Times.

The startling numbers come at a time when cries for English-only have become part of the national debate over immigration.

Yet many educators say the state’s three-year norm is too short a time for students who often are not literate even in their native language. Some say as many as seven to 10 years are necessary to become “academically fluent.” And there is strong evidence from state records that students who complete bilingual programs ultimately do better in school.

Many say anti-Latino sentiment is at work.

“If the bilingual programs were only for the Polish- or Russian-born, I don’t think you’d have the virulent opposition you have now,” said Inter-American magnet school teacher Adela Coronado-Greeley.

The outcome of the debate — whether only fine-tuning is needed or whether traditional bilingual education should be scrapped and replaced with English-immersion programs — will be crucial to children like Francisco, a 9-year-old immigrant from El Salvador who attends Peirce School in Edgewater. It could determine whether he and thousands of other Limited English Proficient students become professionals, laborers or marginally employable minimum-wage employees.

“Every decision we make (about bilingual education) can lead a child to any of these routes,” said Esperanza Zendejas, superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools.

Chicago School Board president Gery Chico says he supports bilingual education, but is dismayed by how long it takes to move some children into a fully English curriculum. “Too many kids are taking too long,” Chico said.

Bilingual education “has to be practiced in the way it was designed, and held accountable, just the way all our other programs are held accountable. . . . I’m not anti-immigrant, the board is not anti-immigrant and the mayor is not anti-immigrant.”

Chicago’s program serves 65,500 students from 89 language groups. Nearly 80 percent are native-Spanish speakers. The program’s $ 100 million annual cost includes pay for teachers who would have been paid in any case. The state pays nearly $ 33 million of the cost for extra teachers who are used to reduce class size.

The state will continue to pay if a school district decides a student needs help beyond three years, but districts have the option to cut off services to a student after three years.

Illinois and Chicago Board of Education figures show:

Of those who left Chicago’s program between 1993 and 1994, only 22.8 percent moved on within three years. Slightly more than half left after four or fewer years.

20.8 percent left after more than six years — twice the state goal.

Only one large suburban district — Elgin District 46 — has a slower rate of moving students to a fully English program. Elgin officials say the program is meant to last longer, explaining why one-third of the students were in bilingual programs longer than six years.

Just under two-thirds of those who left Chicago’s program did so because they tested out of it or their teachers recommended it. Almost one-third were withdrawn by their parents before meeting academic norms for moving on.

121 students are in their 12th or more year of the program, including 49 special education students. Some may be receiving only occasional tutoring.

The figures reflect only students getting help on the state’s tab. More students are in bilingual programs at their local school’s expense, including those in 17 schools that keep students in bilingual programs even after they meet exit criteria. The intent is to keep them fluent in both languages.

“The numbers raise a concern,” said Chicago Schools Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas. “Bilingual education is a critical program and we have to find ways to improve and insulate it from attacks by naysayers.”

Some question whether Chicago has set its exit criteria too high, creating standards that many native-English speakers aren’t meeting. The state requires grade-level performance on a test only of English proficiency to exit the program, while Chicago asks students to hit grade level — or somewhat below it — on a test in English of general academic achievement.

Indeed, when Chicago students do complete the program, a new state study of 866 of them shows, they post impressive results. Three years later, they generally surpassed state standards and citywide averages on state academic achievement tests.

By far, the biggest chunk of those students exited after their third year in the program. The next largest number left after their fifth year.

But Chico said his inclination is to improve the program rather than lower the exit criteria.

As part of an ongoing program audit, Chicago officials want to determine if they are deploying their resources in the “best way possible,” and getting help to those who need it most, Vallas said. That includes children who enter Chicago public schools with little or no literacy in their native language.

Some of those children are being taught at two West Side Newcomer Centers. They opened last month to give new arrivals to this country intensified English help and acclimate them to living in a big city. A third is planned this fall on the North Side.

The Chavez Newcomer Center serves new arrivals in grades six to eight who need to get up to speed quickly to handle the more complex high school work ahead, said Principal Sandy Traback.

“We have children who come here who have to acclimate themselves to an urban situation because they come from rural Mexico and may have seen a teacher on horseback twice a week,” Traback said. “When a child transfers in in December, directly from Mexico, they are at a loss, their teachers are at a loss.”

Yet across the country, critics

blast some bilingual education models, which they say have become more focused on maintaining native languages and preserving jobs than teaching English.

“Bilingual education is very political,” said Tom Doluisio, schools superintendent in Bethlehem, Pa., who scrapped native language instruction for all-English instruction. The program still uses teachers experienced in teaching non-native speakers. “It’s become a jobs program.”

In New York City and Los Angeles, Hispanic parents of children in bilingual programs have protested, demanding more English-language instruction for their children.

A scathing 1994 analysis of New York city’s bilingual education program found that limited-English students who took most of their classes in English were adjusting far faster and showing better short-term results than students in bilingual programs — most of them Hispanic.

It contrasts with summaries of a new study of 40,000 students — not yet published — which found that the longer students receive instruction in their native language, the better their long-term achievement.

Its author, Virginia Collier, a professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., contends that to be successful in school in a second language, “a student’s first language system — oral and written — must be developed to a high cognitive level at least through the elementary school years.”

Chicago’s version of transitional bilingual education requires more instruction in English in earlier years than does New York’s. But in any case, Illinois law requires that some schools teach students reading — and other core subjects — in their native language until they are ready for fully English classrooms. All schools with more than 19 students of one language group are supposed to use it.

Schools with fewer than 20 have more flexibility.

Collier’s favorite method of bilingual study was a dual language model in which students of English and one other language group learn both languages, together, in one classroom. Inter-American School in Chicago uses that model.

Vallas likes the program, as it somewhat matches his own experience. He was a student and teacher at a South Side school where students were schooled in English in the morning and in Greek in the afternoon. He said dual language programs don’t separate kids the way many transitional models do.

“When kids are in programs for seven or eight or nine years . . . you run the risk of de facto segregation, which undermines multiculturalism,” Vallas said.

Contributing: Jon Schmid

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