Tom Tawney’s concerns about the bilingual program in West Chicago Elementary District 33 are not unique in the city’s Hispanic community.

“We have concerns regarding students being kept in the program four and five and six years,” said Tawney, who often speaks on Hispanic issues in the city.

Many Hispanics also worry the district isn’t communicating with parents of Spanish-speaking students, he said.

And they question efforts by the district to include Spanish-speaking students in the same activities other students enjoy.

While Tawney’s concerns may have come as news to many, for district officials they were more akin to preaching to the choir, according to board President Barbara Toney.

“The questions you ask are questions we’ve all had at one point or another,” said Toney.

With that, the board this week opened up the public portion of an informal review of its own bilingual program.

“I’m hoping to get some answers tonight and in the next couple meetings,” said Toney, who has been through the same process at least twice before.

The review comes just months after the board entered into an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education to monitor bilingual programs at West Chicago’s five elementary and one middle school.

That agreement itself followed a year-long study of those programs conducted by the department’s office for civil rights during the 1997-98 academic year, one of five similar studies conducted in Illinois in the same year.

The study concluded with a letter from the education department complimenting the district on many of its efforts.

“Your staff is clearly dedicated to providing alternate language services to those in need of such services. We applaud your efforts …” the letter read.

However, the district also was asked to report to the office of civil rights on its bilingual programs on a regular basis through June 2002.

The district is about 46 percent Hispanic, with more than 1,000 of its students in some form of bilingual education program.

Even with its recent glowing report, board members agree with many of Tawney’s points, admitting there is room for improvement.

One area getting special attention is the rate at which students exit bilingual programs.

As late as 1994, before the last upheaval took place, that rate was at about 2.6 percent. The following school year it jumped to 11 percent. Since then it has continued to rise, settling in at 12.8 percent for the 1997-1998 school year, according to district figures.

During its public review Thursday, the board heard from several teachers on the components of their day to day activities in bilingual classrooms.

They also reviewed efforts to integrate Spanish-speaking students into the general student population and the process by which students are moved from bilingual programs to standard classrooms.

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