A year ago, Peter Wegielnik and his parents left Poland and the political turmoil there and settled in suburban Elk Grove Village, where he is in the 4th grade at Devonshire School. His classmates include Cubans and Koreans. His teacher, a German-American married to a Venezuelan, speaks German, Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese and some Korean.
For part of each day, a Polish teacher’s aide helps Peter learn that pole is field, koza is goat and krowa is cow. At other times, his regular teacher uses English to drill him in math and reading.
The technique is called bilingual education–teaching in two languages.
As the United States experiences the largest influx of immigrants since the turn of the century, public schools in Chicago and across the country struggle to educate children from all over the world. How well schools fare with these new students will have a significant impact on the nation’s future, as well as on the lives of the youngsters.
The aim of bilingual education is to expose immigrant children to English while using their native language to keep them from falling behind in other areas until they are ready for a regular classroom. In many cases, it works well.
But a three-month study by The Tribune has concluded that bilingual education in Chicago and the suburbs has slipped into a jumble of approaches lacking a uniform vision or a grounding in solid teaching methods.
In some cases, this gives schools the autonomy to develop excellent programs, such as the one that is helping Peter Wegielnik succeed in school. In others, it leaves teachers floundering without guidance.
Many programs are handicapped by uneven qualifications among teachers, a “feast or famine” availability of materials, inadequate monitoring and testing of students, and the “padding” of bilingual classes to gain funding, according to teachers, principals and experts in the field.
When bilingual education fails, immigrant children are less likely to become active participants in American society. Given the increasing numbers of newcomers, schools can ill afford to miss the mark.
Since September, 10,500 students who do not speak English have enrolled in Chicago public schools. There are nearly 38,000 students in the city’s bilingual programs. Suburban and Downstate programs teach an additional 7,500 students.
Despite popular beliefs that such programs are confined to inner-city barrios or Southwest U.S. cities and towns, bilingual education is now used in hundreds of city and suburban classrooms to teach children in an array of languages. The variety enriches many schools, but presents a challenge to a system strained by a lack of money and resources.
Though Spanish-speaking students make up 80 percent of those in bilingual education, native language instruction in Illinois is offered in 25 languages, including Cambodian, Assyrian, Romanian, Vietnamese, Arabic and Urdu. Special help is given to children who speak 100 other languages.
State funding of bilingual education is expected to increase to $44.2 million from $18.5 million next year because of a new state law requiring that even one non-English speaking child in a school receive special help, though not necessarily native language instruction. The law will create nearly 600 teaching jobs, most of them in the suburbs.
Those closest to bilingual education say it works well in grade school because younger children learn a language more easily. It also works where dedicated and experienced teachers have developed their own teaching techniques to make up for a lack of guidance. In Elk Grove Village, for example, schools employ a number of aides to lavish individual attention on their new students.
But bilingual education falls short in nearly all high schools, forced to adopt an ill-fitting elementary model and in schools where teachers do not speak English well or where a principal does not agree with the tenets of bilingual education. It also fails where intensive English classes are taught by instructors lacking proper training.
As one teacher acknowledged, “I don’t know why what I do sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.”
Though 1.3 million students nationwide are taught using bilingual education, U.S. Education Secretary William Bennett, attacking the program last fall, said $1.7 billion had been spent with “no proof that it works.”
Even supporters are sometimes critical.
“It’s a very controversial subject,” said George Munoz, president of the Chicago Board of Education. “I think bilingual education is a very, very good idea, but I’m not sure it’s working the way it’s supposed to.
“There are things that I would criticize about it. But in doing that, I don’t say it needs to be abandoned; rather, it needs to be fixed.”
The failures may have more in common with the problems of urban education than with bilingual techniques.
“It may be nearly impossible to have properly run programs in the inner city, where most immigrants settle,” says Roberto Fernandez, professor of sociology at the University of Arizona. “But that is a problem of urban school systems, not of bilingual education.”
Indeed, bilingual education means something different nearly everywhere one looks.
— To Soo Jae Lee, 16, who was in a bilingual program for 1/2 years of grammar school, it is “a big help because my teacher could speak to me in Korean.” Now a junior at Lane Technical High School, one of the most demanding public schools in the city, he ranks 12th in a class of 1,137.
— To David Peterson, principal of Wells High School on the Near North Side, bilingual education is a tangle of rules and drawn-out battles with state auditors, who once found the program there so “seriously deficient” they refused to reimburse the school $80,000. “Tell me what to do,” he says, “and I’ll do it.”
— To Angelica Villalon, 14, it is an incomprehensible system that insists she take chemistry class in Spanish at Juarez High School, even though she speaks fluent English. Inflexible programming at the school often keeps students in the bilingual program longer than necessary.
— To Agatha Vasilescu, 17, Amundsen High School valedictorian, bilingual education is a program she shunned “because it was so basic.” Vasilescu taught herself English when she came to Chicago from Romania six years ago.
— To Julia Trevizo, parent-council president at Whittier Elementary School, bilingual education is a way for her children to be able to communicate with older family members. “My son cannot speak or read well in Spanish; that is not good,” she says.
Bilingual education grew out of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. It was mandated by Congress in 1968 and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1974.
But it was imposed on schools before enough “specialist” teachers were trained–creating a severe shortage across the nation of qualified teachers –and before a body of knowledge was developed on how best to teach in two languages.
In addition, its educational goals were clouded by ethnic groups, especially Hispanics, who seized upon it to preserve native language and culture. The change in philosophy led to an impassioned debate between proponents, who see bilingual education as an effective way to teach English and acknowledge cultural differences, and critics, who charge it is expensive and un-American.
An unspoken fear among many English speakers that new Americans who speak two languages may be in a better position to compete for jobs also fuels the debate.
“There has always been an aura of antagonism around bilingual education,” says Eduardo Cadavid, who heads the Department of Multilingual Education for Chicago’s public schools. “We have to spend less time defending bilingual education and more time making it work. It got caught in the political arena, and that made it very volatile.”
In 1983, opposition to bilingual education prompted former U.S. Sen. S.I. Hayakawa (R., Calif.) to found U.S. English, a Washington, D.C., group devoted to defending the primacy of English and preventing the American “melting pot” from becoming an ethnic “salad bowl.” Hayakawa also has lobbied for a constitutional amendment to make English the only official language of the United States.
“Bilingual education is more than just instruction,” says Richard Schnettler, principal of Juarez High School, where nearly 400 students participate in one of the most extensive high school bilingual programs in the city. “It’s political. It’s cultural. It’s bureaucratic. It’s a very difficult thing for me to grab hold of.”
Despite the controversy, federal and state laws require that English- deficient students be taught part of the day in their native language when there are 20 or more at a school who speak the same language.
That is a major departure from the practice in the first part of the century, when immigrant children were given no help in learning English. Many dropped out before completing grade school, but they were able to secure unskilled work on farms or in industries.
But in a post-industrial, technological society, it is clear that the old practice of “sink or swim” cannot work.
It is unclear whether bilingual education as it exists, however, can adequately prepare those students to take a productive place in American society.
“We don’t really know how people learn a second language,” says David Ramirez, project director of SRA Technologies, a California educational research group. “Most of the studies I’ve seen are inconclusive. We know little about the different programs children have had over the years.”
One thing proponents and critics agree on is that bilingual education keeps students in school. Only 12 percent of those in bilingual programs drop out, compared with a citywide dropout rate of 43 percent.
Little research exists, free of political motivations, on the relative merits of bilingual education and the second most common method of teaching immigrant students: intensive English instruction without the use of native language.
In defense of bilingual education, supporters argue that students forced to take courses in English before they understand it fall behind. On the high school level, this is particularly important because teachers deal with complex concepts.
At Senn Metropolitan High School, one of the most diverse in the nation, Bobby Ryan teaches urban studies to 16 students. Among them they speak Spanish, French, Chinese, Cambodian, Haitian, Pakistani and Farsi. A Cambodian aide assists him.
Ryan, who speaks only English, believes students do better without the “crutch” of bilingual education. On a recent Tuesday, he gave a lesson in “rapid transit” and the Chicago Transit Authority Culture Bus.
“What does rapid mean?,” Ryan asked. “What is culture?” Most students understood that “rapid” means “fast” when Ryan walked quickly across the room. But only the Cambodian students, who received a translation from the aide, understood the meaning of “culture” and what it could possibly have to do with a bus.
In contrast, Benjamin Tam teaches American history to 14 students in Cantonese and English and lectures on complicated political ideas.
“They take notes in Cantonese and take tests in Cantonese,” Tam said. “Otherwise, all I would get from them is a blank piece of paper. But I try to get them to talk in English. I think what I am doing is a good compromise between all-Cantonese and all-English.”
Sometimes teachers fail to compromise, causing critics to complain that students are not learning English. Juarez High School, for instance, offers two chemistry classes for bilingual students. The teacher of one conducts the class completely in Spanish; the other teaches wholly in English.
“There is no structure to follow, no consistent evaluation, no follow- up,” says Carlos Ortiz, bilingual coordinator at Juarez. “It’s all designed too broadly.”
Complicating matters are “stopwatch strict” federal and state guidelines that are often unrealistic and out of touch with student needs, school schedules and the shortage of qualified teachers.
For instance, students should receive a minimum 90 minutes of native language instruction each day. The requirement is unenforceable at most high schools, which operate 40-minute classes, while schools with multilingual programs cannot find certified teachers in languages like Hmong or Farsi.
A survey by The Tribune of 70 Chicago schools found that only 17 were in compliance with state rules.
Many violated the 90-minute requirement. Several employed teachers without bilingual certificates. Many kept students in programs longer than necessary and others put them in regular classes before they were ready.
Some positive light is being shed on bilingualism as parents realize their children will be in a better position to compete for jobs if they know two languages. Inter-American Magnet School is among four Chicago schools that teach English and Spanish in equal doses to all children, regardless of their ethnic backround or native language. The school has 400 students on its waiting list.
“People are finally understanding that bilingualism is something good,”
explains Lourdes Lopez, principal at Sabin School, which has a program similar to Inter-American. “It can be attractive to whites and blacks, Greeks and Hungarians, as well as Hispanics.”
Monday: Poor management spells trouble for a bilingual program at Juarez High School.
The young immigrants Chicago area schools are struggling to teach non-English speaking children from all over the world. This is the first in a series of occasional reports on how well schools meet the challenge.