Teachers at Streamwood Elementary School spend six hours a day teaching a building full of kindergarteners how to read, write and speak Spanish correctly.

They spend half an hour a day teaching the pupils to speak English.

Those ratios change as the children get older and become more fluent in both languages, but the bilingual program in Elgin Area Unit District 46 – bilingual programs across the country, in fact – have come under fire in recent months. Educators and school board members have clashed as they try to decide how to best acquaint children with English.

For families with children at Streamwood, the building is a haven from the mostly English-speaking suburbs.

When she first moved here from Mexico 10 years ago, Maria Reyes of Streamwood felt helpless because she did not speak English, but felt better when her children’s teachers spoke Spanish.

“When you come from Mexico, Guatemala, wherever, you understand nothing,” said Reyes, who now works as a teacher’s aide at Streamwood. “You feel like an animal because no one can understand you.”

English vs. Spanish

But there are people, including school board member Doug Heaton, who would like to take another look at the district’s bilingual program. They want to see if students could ease into entirely English-speaking classes within two or three years rather than the five to seven years most students take now.

Nearly all of the teachers at Streamwood believe a delayed transition is appropriate, assuming the children are ready. Still others – including predominately Hispanic school districts in California – believe children should begin their education in English-speaking kindergarten classes and learn by immersion.

Something Heaton said about the program during a school board meeting in December resulted in disappointment and confusion among Streamwood’s staff. Citing an article he read in an education journal about English education in Puerto Rico, Heaton said, “The scary thing is, a student in Puerto Rico has a better chance of getting exposed to English than a student in U-46 (does).”

He then called for the district to re-examine its bilingual program, a suggestion the rest of the board does not appear to support.

Educating the public

The bilingual teachers at Streamwood have not forgotten his comments and wonder how much the Anglo public knows about the bilingual program.

At Streamwood Elementary School, many of the pupils’ parents come from small villages in Spanish-speaking countries and have little more than a third-grade education. Most of the children live in apartments in mostly Hispanic neighborhoods and attend Spanish-speaking church services; therefore, English skills are not always reinforced at home.

Principal Lois Sands says because of those realities, people cannot look at bilingual education without examining children’s living situations.

“To educate a child in a Mexican family or a Hispanic family is to teach them good manners and such, but education is (seen as) the school’s responsibility,” Sands said. “Many of these children come from low-income, non-stable home environments … You can’t apply what you see somewhere else to this type of population.”

Parental involvement

The school’s mission statement includes an emphasis on parental involvement. Many parents do get involved, not only by volunteering at school but by attending English classes and receiving their general equivalency diploma.

But the bilingual program’s success stems from the emphasis on building the children’s skills in their native language before teaching them much English, teachers say.

As a result, the hundreds of tiny faces and colorful Spanish-language posters on Streamwood’s walls are comforts for parents who don’t speak English. Parents are not afraid to come to school and talk with the teachers and staff.

Many see what teachers are trying to accomplish and they learn how to supplement their children’s education at home – even if they don’t speak English. Of the approximately 27 children in each of Streamwood’s kindergarten classes, between five and seven of the children’s parents know English, teachers say.

The children understand some English, even more so if they have older brothers or sisters who have been through the bilingual program.

They often respond in Spanish to questions teachers ask in English. To acquaint the children with simple vocabulary, teacher Gregorio Posada asks the children to point to their noses, stick out their tongues and point to their teeth. A little girl says “I brush my teeth” in Spanish, and Posada acknowledges her comment by responding in English, “Me, too.”

And she understands.

A teacher’s touch

The point of the program is to make children feel comfortable with the skills involved in learning the language, not just speaking, reading or writing but a successful combination of all three. That requires more than an English or Spanish instructor – it takes someone who can provide the right balance for each student.

“I’m not just a teacher in a classroom,” said Wilma Valero, one of Streamwood’s teachers and a native of Puerto Rico. “I’m a teacher in a supermarket, and I see my (students’) parents and I have to translate for them. I’m a teacher 24 hours a day and I’m very proud of that. And I’m proud to be bilingual.”

The number of children enrolled in the district’s bilingual program has grown by 10 percent each year for the past 12 years, accounting for 4,000 of the district’s 33,000 pupils. Jack Fields, director of bilingual education in District 46, says a growing anti-immigrant sentiment in America makes it easier for people to criticize bilingual education.

Education, not politics

“People are fearful of a changing America,” Fields said. “Bilingual education is a natural thing to lash out at … (But) I hope we can continue to make educational decisions rather than political decisions.”

Elisabet Villaneuva, 21, of Elgin believes she benefited from those decisions.

Villaneuva attended a bilingual kindergarten class at Elgin’s Century Oaks Elementary School, graduated from Larkin High School and has returned to District 46 as a bilingual teacher’s aide at Streamwood.

Born and raised in Elgin, her parents were from Puerto Rico and spoke little English until her father learned English at work. She had older brothers and sisters, though, who spoke English, and that helped her in fifth grade, when she gradually shifted into an all-English curriculum.

Now, as she contemplates a degree program at Northern Illinois University, she is on her way to fulfilling her dream of becoming a teacher.

“I know what they’re going through,” said Villaneuva, who told the children on the first day of school she is a product of the district’s bilingual program. “I can relate to them on a personal basis.”

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