“Do I have to go?”
Those five words tugged at Illinois Park sixth-grade teacher Jeff Miller who could not give the answer his sixth-grader Hosea wanted to hear Wednesday.
He and the two other sixth-grade teachers wanted to tell Hosea and six other bilingual students they didn’t have to transfer to another school today and leave behind the friends they had made.
But because of continued overcrowding, the school district says it’s in a bind.
The Illinois Park students, along with 12 students from Heritage Elementary in Streamwood, are being transferred to a just added sixth-grade class housed in a new mobile classroom at Hillcrest Elementary in Elgin.
All three school’s sixth-grade classes were so crowded officials in Elgin Area School District U-46 felt they had to relocate them, even though it is a move that alters the course of their bilingual program.
For years U-46 has been trying to get away from shuffling bilingual students around the district. At many schools they have succeeded by expanding the bilingual program through fourth and sixth grades.
But the sixth grade classes at Illinois Park, Heritage and Hillcrest grew beyond 35 students, which exceeds the 25-student standard U-46 wants to maintain for its bilingual classrooms.
Moving these students today will get those classes down to about 25 to 27 students.
“We are sorry to lose the kids, not the numbers,” said sixth-grade teacher Maureen Larsen.
“You can love each one of them but with 34 kids in a class you can’t give them the attention that they deserve.”
Wednesday was a sad day for teachers and students at Illinois Park and Heritage elementary schools.
At Illinois Park, teachers tried to brighten the mood Tuesday with a party. On Wednesday students who had won canvas school bags in the reading program decorated them and had students and teachers sign them.
“I think it’s hard on the kids,” teacher Joni DeDobbelaere said. They have just learned rules and made friends and now they are going to have to do it all over again, she added.
For some students, today is a homecoming. All except for two of the Illinois Park students attended fifth grade at Hillcrest.
Still, students have mixed feelings about leaving Illinois Park.
“I’m happy and sad – sad because I’m going to leave this school and my friends and happy because I am going to see my friends in the other school,” said a sixth grader named Rogelio.
His classmate, Pam, said she was somewhat excited. “We are not going to see our teachers anymore,” she added.
Principals and teachers seemed satisfied with the way U-46 officials selected the students who would move. Not only did they choose students who have attended Hillcrest, but they also tried to keep siblings together and send students with some of their friends.
Still, that did not appease all parents.
“Parents did call me. I’m surprised more parents don’t call,” Illinois Park Principal Cathy Dunphy said. “Frankly, these kids are moved too much.”
Pam’s father, Enrique Vasquez said he would rather his daughter remain at Illinois Park.
“It’s not fair to move her from place to place to go to school. (Pam) lost many of her friends,” he said. “It’s better to be in one school because, again, she has to get to know the teachers, the students and the different subjects.”
Jack Fields, director of bilingual education for U-46, admits it is disruptive to shuffle students around the district. For that reason, administrators continue to create anchor schools for bilingual programs. Anchor schools house bilingual programs from kindergarten through at least fourth grade, which is when most U-46 bilingual students are ready to enter regular classrooms.
Some schools like Illinois Park, Heritage and Hillcrest have bilingual classes through sixth grade.
Having students attend one elementary school for their bilingual education provides more stability than busing them around the district for different grades, Fields said.
But this year, Fox Meadow Elementary in South Elgin, a bilingual anchor school, lost its kindergarten, first and second grade bilingual classes because of overcrowding. The students were moved back to Gifford Elementary, the school they attended before Fox Meadow opened.
Relief for the bilingual program could be a couple of years down the road. The $ 271 million building plan that U-46 could ask voters to approve in March calls for six new elementary schools in U-46, which could provide more space for bilingual classrooms.
Until those schools are built, individual schools are having to do the best they can.
One of the biggest battles schools face is finding ways to bilingual students into regular classrooms when the regular classrooms already are full.
“It is basically up to teachers working together,” Fields said. “You have to be creative to get it done.”
Sixth-grade teachers at Illinois Park restructured their classes to handle their enrollment growth.
Now they include all their bilingual students in regular classes in the mornings for math, social studies and science. The teachers divide the 91 sixth graders into three groups who rotate to different teachers for different subjects. A bilingual aide follows the bilingual students from class to class.
In the afternoons, the students go back to their homeroom teachers for reading and language.
Administrators and teachers hope to avoid moving more students like they are today.
In this case, they believe they have done what is best for students.
“It is the lesser of two evils,” Heritage Principal Alfred Fulton said. “I’d rather have the students where their educational needs can be addressed appropriately.”