As a volunteer tutor for twin sisters from Pakistan, Sheeba Safa, 13, of Arlington Heights cherishes the Farsi she learned from her Iranian grandmother.
Just a few miles east at Wheeling High School, Principal Dorothy Sievert converses in Spanish with 80 parents who gather each week for Latino Parent Night.
And at the Learning Resource Center in Des Plaines, director Else Hamayan envisions a day when bilingual education will be truly democratic, with the children of immigrants and native English-speaking students learning the three R’s in at least two languages.
“If I could have a wish, it would be that everyone is aiming at bilingual education,” said Hamayan, whose non-profit organization helps 8,000 teachers a year. “It is so important to our children’s future that they are sensitive to cultural diversity.”
Bilingualism a reality
Hamayan’s vision of a schoolhouse where bilingual education is considered imperative for all children is already a reality at a handful of local schools. And with an influx of immigrant families in the northwest suburbs, educators are finding creative solutions to meet the educational and social needs of children from across the globe.
For Sievert at Wheeling High School, the fact that 45 percent of her students come from homes where English is not the first language spoken poses both challenges and rewards.
“I think the most attractive feature for me when I took this job was the high school’s diversity,” said Sievert, who holds a master’s degree in Spanish and is a former bilingual teacher. “We have an environment here where all races, religions and backgrounds co-exist in unbelievable harmony.”
A recent Latino Parent Night featured a speaker from the Illinois Coalition for Immigrants and Refugee Rights, giving parents a chance to ask questions in Spanish. The monthly event also has explored topics such as talking to children about sex and keeping teens away from gangs.
Once a month, the high school offers an immunization clinic, where local residents of all backgrounds can bring their children for free shots.
And next year, in addition to a separate ESL program for Spanish-speaking students, the high school will start a bilingual program for the burgeoning number of students arriving from Poland each year.
Recognizing religious diversity
Sievert has even opened the door to the principal’s conference room to allow Muslim teens to have a quiet place to fast and reflect during Ramadan.
“I think most of our parents understand the multiculturalism here means their children are getting an enriched educational experience,” Sievert said.
Dennis Terdy, the director of grants and special programs for Township High School District 214, said that while Spanish, Gujarati, Polish, Russian and Korean are most common, at least 29 languages are spoken by students throughout the district’s seven high schools.
To meet the district’s graduation requirements, all ESL students must have at least three years of English instruction, and Terdy said the district’s main goal is “to get these students mainstreamed.”
“It is absolutely immoral if we don’t teach these students how to speak English,” Terdy said. “But we can’t expect ESL students to start out by sitting in a science or history class that is taught in English. It takes at least six months. Those classes can be tough even when you’re fluent in English.”
While academics remain the top priority for the district’s ESL teachers, their job includes understanding the myriad cultural differences that each student brings to the table. Three of the district’s high schools have bilingual counselors, and district officials are even exploring the possibility of opening a visitor’s center for immigrant families, a concept that Terdy calls a much needed “cultural and academic shock absorber.”
Above all, Terdy is determined to prove that being fluent in two languages and cultures should lead to personal and professional success stories, instead of another generation of immigrants working double shifts at low-paying jobs.
“When you look at immigrants of the past, the grandparents might have barely finished 8th grade, the parents graduated from high school, and finally, the next generation went to college,” Terdy said. “My goal is to skip a generation. Why should there be a waiting period before children from these families go to college?”
Prevention through mentoring
Terdy is especially proud of an Elk Grove High School teen, who was once considered at risk of truancy and gang involvement, but who now acts a mentor to his fellow Spanish-speaking peers at an after-school tutoring program, “It Counts.”
“It is an extension of the school day, with more English and more math,” Terdy said. “You see these kids who were pretty tough, and on the border of joining gangs, and they are lined up, waiting at the door three days a week to get extra help.”
But some northwest suburban schools still have few bilingual students, making it challenging to provide an education and social support to just a handful of youngsters.
Tutoring and friendship
At Thomas Middle School in Arlington Heights, where about 1 percent of the students are considered non-native English speakers, 8th grader Sheeba Safa spends homeroom and 6th period each school day tutoring her new friends, Rona and Zala Wardak, who enrolled in the District 25 school in November.
“I saw them in the hallway, wearing traditional scarves on their heads and looking a little lost,” Safa recalled. “It seemed like they needed a translator, so I took a chance and said ‘hello, how are you?’ in Farsi. They knew the dialect, and we started talking.”
With the support of principal Charles Crissey and her teachers, Safa has added the distinction of translator to her resume–an experience she said “makes me very happy.”
As the daughter of Iranian immigrants, Safa was born in the U.S. but is familiar with her family’s customs and language. She munched on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at lunch while explaining her role as a mentor.
“They don’t have very many friends yet, but people have been nice to them,” Safa said. “My dream has always been to makes a difference in people’s lives.”