English speakers could join U-46 bilingual classes

Under dual-language, kids would learn Spanish

Elgin Area School District U-46 could dramatically change the way it educates bilingual students by making English-speaking students part of the program.

Rather than just educating non-English speaking students to speak English, U-46 is looking at an elementary program that at the same time would teach other students to speak Spanish.

It is called a dual-language program, and it’s one of the recommendations a committee charged with evaluating the district’s bilingual program believes deserves serious exploration.

In a dual-language program, 90 percent of the instruction is done in the minority language, said Ann Riebock, assistant superintendent for educational services and accountability, who led the committee. It also allows students to mentor one another.

“By the time they are in sixth grade, they would be fluent in both languages,” she said.

Riebock hopes that U-46 can find enough principals, parents and teachers to experiment with such a program in the near future.

Her committee began assessing the district’s bilingual program earlier this year, addressing concerns that it was taking students too long to learn English.

The committee will make its recommendations to school board members Monday night. In addition to exploring a dual-language program, other recommendations include:

– Evaluating students’ progress after four years in bilingual classes and developing an exit plan or providing further assistance;

– Providing opportunities to educate teachers on how to meet the needs of diverse students;

– Keeping bilingual students in their neighborhood schools;

– Tracking the progress of bilingual students several years after they exit the program.

The dual-education system is perhaps one of the most bold suggestions.

Research shows it to be an effective way of educating bilingual students.

Studies in “The Bilingual Research Journal” and another, conducted by the National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education at George Washington University, find that non-English speaking students and English-speaking students – when they study both languages – outscore their monolingual counterparts on achievement tests given in English.

But the program could be difficult to start in U-46.

For one, it requires long-term availability of a school that would allow students to progress through the sixth grade. Lack of space already has kept U-46 from extending the bilingual program through the sixth grade at some elementary schools.

And second, it could be difficult to find qualified teachers to teach the combined classes. Already U-46, like many districts, has trouble finding bilingual teachers and has to travel abroad to recruit.

The committee hopes there is enough interest in the dual-language program that district leaders, teachers and parents will want to look at it as an option.

Already, the program has some support from principals.

“I think it is a wonderful idea,” said Spring Trail Elementary Principal Melody Huisinga. “If a child is going to learn a second language, the younger they are, the more natural (it will come).”

Carolyn O’Neal, principal of Oakhill Elementary in Streamwood, said a dual-language program makes sense, especially since one-quarter of Elgin’s population speaks Spanish.

“If they are here, why not learn both languages,” she said. “I would like to try it.”

Starting a dual-language program could take years, but some of the committee’s other recommendations for the bilingual program could be put into place immediately, Riebock said.

The committee doesn’t recommend that U-46 reduce the number of years for the bilingual program. Currently, all but 13 percent of U-46’s 4,500 bilingual students enter regular classes by fourth grade.

Research shows it takes second-language learners five to seven years to become academically competent in a second language, the committee found.

When students leave the program before they are ready, they struggle later in school when the concepts become more difficult, Riebock said.

Although the committee recommends U-46 try to keep its bilingual students in one place, preferably in their neighborhood schools, that is not what is happening.

Fox Meadow Elementary in South Elgin, which was designated as an anchor school for bilingual programs, had to move three of its bilingual classes to Gifford Elementary this year because of space constraints.

Also, sixth-graders at Illinois Park and Heritage Elementary School were moved to Hillcrest Elementary a month into the school year because of crowding.

And now that Bartlett High School exceeds its student capacity by 300, district officials have acknowledged that moving its 400-student bilingual program is an option to ease crowding. However, the reason U-46 moved the students from Elgin High School in the first place was to racially balance the district’s four high schools.

When bilingual students don’t attend schools in their neighborhood, Riebock said, it makes it difficult for parents to get involved. Transportation often is an issue, she added.

One of the things the committee wants to further study is the opportunities for parent participation in school activities.

Riebock said it should be U-46’s goal to bring students back to their home schools.

But then how does the district do that when there is a lack of space?

“That is the $ 64,000 question,” said Odalie Kelley, a second-grade bilingual teacher at Coleman Elementary, who helped with the study.

GRAPHIC: U-46 explores options

For about a year, a committee of Elgin Area School District leaders, teachers and parents have been evaluating the district’s bilingual program. They offer a number of suggestions for improvement, among which are:

– Exploring the option of starting a dual-language program at interested schools where English and Spanish students would be educated in the same classes so that the students learn two languages.

– Continuing to monitor the academic progress of students once they exit the bilingual program and enter a regular classroom.

– Keeping bilingual students at one school, preferably their neighborhood school.

– Evaluating students’ progress at the end of their fourth year in the bilingual program and either develop a plan to exit the program or provide additional assistance.

– Providing training for English-speaking teachers to help them meet the needs of diverse students.

– Ensuring there are ample opportunities for bilingual parent involvement in schools.

Source: Elgin Area School District U-46

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