In a concrete, breeze-block building on the edge of Chicago’s Yuppified Lincoln Park area, pupils at the Inter-American Magnet school argue in a mixture of Spanish and English. “Ella, teacher, tambien,” shouts one, calling the teacher’s attention to one of his friends.
The bilingual elementary school is an educational success story in a city whose municipal education system has been described by Mr William Bennett, the Federal Education Secretary, as the worst in the US.
The parents who set it up 13 years ago are keen to see it used as a model in the continuing debate over bilingual education.
Inter-American is publicly funded, so tuition is free, but its approach to the language question is quite different from that of other public schools, where bilingual teaching is generally seen as a transitional stage towards integrating Hispanic children into the US education system.
Most public schools put immigrant children, who often speak no English, through a three-year course designed to teach them to read in Spanish, and then move them on to English. In the second phase, they receive no Spanish instruction. This can leave them cut off from their parents, who often speak only rudimentary English.
At Inter-American, the children begin by learning to read and write in their own language, be it English or Spanish. They later learn reading and writing in the other tongue; the school’s most unusual feature is that all other classes alternate day by day between Spanish and English.
“It’s a very wholesome way to learn,” says Ms Adela Greeley, one of the two parents who founded the school. “We were fed up with schools that treated Spanish-speaking children as if they had a learning disability.”
Ms Greeley points to the natural way the pupils learn from one another, “instead of having it all drummed into them in a classroom.” She tries to foster the idea that being bilingual is an asset, and that Spanish-speakers should continue studying in their own language.
Today, Inter-American scores highest in examination results for the city’s bilingual programmes. It receives over 40 applications for every place.
It won full entitlement to public funding by becoming registered as a “Magnet” school, a category of educational establishment that caters to special interests such as dancing or art as well as foreign languages. One of their stated purposes is to overcome segregation.
At Inter-American, strict ethnic ratios are maintained, on the insistence of the principal Ms Eva Hellwing. Some 60 per cent of the pupils are Hispanic, while 10 per cent are black, 28 per cent white, and 2 per cent from other ethnic groups.
Critics say the Magnet schools have become elitist by screening applicants through a series of stiff entrance examinations.
Here again Inter-American is different. It selects its pupils by an exhaustive method based on a random lottery, followed up with an interview, and a second lottery. One of the criteria is that the parents should be committed to bilingual education, Ms Hellwing says.
Since starting the school, Ms Greeley has worked hard to keep parents involved in its development. “We wanted to connect the language and the culture, eventually involving the whole community,” she says, apologizing if she sounds too idealistic.
The parents’ council has a decisive say in the running of the school. One of its members will sit in on interviews for new teachers, all of whom must be bilingual. The council also has a vote in the choice of the shcool’s head and a say in curriculum choice.
One parent describes a meeting of the multi-ethnic parents’ council as a “raucous affair with the emotional tone of, say, the entry of Emiliano Zapata’s troops into Mexico City.”
And Inter-American parents are at the forefront of a movement pressing for reform of the school system city-wide. “Our parents aren’t the sort that just sit back and hold bake sales,” Ms Greeley says.
Diverse school reform movements were moved to join forces by a month-long teachers’ strike last September and they have made recommendations to the City Council on how Chicago’s schools can be improved. Given that almost every reform suggestion involves greater parental participation, Inter-American parents see their school as a useful model.
“Our parent body is very well educated,” says Ms Greeley, who advocates training for parents to make them less intimidated by teachers and schools. She believes schools are at fault for shutting their doors to parents. “If you only want them when you need money, it’s not very exciting for them.”