Hispanic pupils at center of debate

Mundelein faces a language issue

A Mundelein school district has proposed converting its two neighborhood elementary schools to grade centers, a controversial idea aimed at helping teachers who say they’ve been overwhelmed by Hispanic pupils struggling with English.

“They were just getting so many students who don’t speak the language … that it was starting to hurt education for all the kids,” said Ray Partridge, superintendent of Mundelein School District 75, where Hispanic enrollment has more than doubled to 22 percent in seven years. Under the grade center plan, all pupils in kindergarten through 2nd grade would attend Washington School, and the district’s other neighborhood school, Mechanics-Grove, would have 3rd through 5th grades.

Reaction to the proposal, which would reduce the heavy concentration of Hispanics at Washington, has included crowded, often heated meetings with angry parents.

Officials say that by ensuring that Hispanics are more evenly distributed in the district–Washington is 38 percent Hispanic, Mechanics-Grove is 16 percent– the district would improve education opportunities for children still learning English. The proposal, they say, also will benefit other pupils by creating schools that reflect the district’s different cultural and economic backgrounds.

A third elementary school, Lincoln, hasn’t figured in the debate. It operates year-round and is open to any pupil in the district. Lincoln has a 15 percent Hispanic enrollment.

After studying the issue for seven months, a committee of teachers, principals, administrators and board members made its unanimous recommendation in April.

The debate started a year ago when teachers at Washington, where 22 percent of the students have limited English proficiency, complained that they would not be able to maintain the school’s above-average test scores if they had to continue devoting so much time to children still learning the language.

“It’s a critical-mass kind of thing,” said Barb Zander, co-president of the teachers union. “With so many non-English-speaking and low-income students, you have to deal with all the students’ varying level of needs and the teacher gets stretched to the point that they can’t deal with it effectively.”

About 25 percent of Washington’s pupils come from low-income families; about 7 percent of Mechanics-Grove’s enrollment is low income.

Neighborhood elementary schools are the norm across the state. Only 10 percent of the nearly 900 school districts used grade centers in 1999, the most recent year figures were available.

Typically, grade centers are used to help ease overcrowding and to make it easier to adjust to rapidly shifting enrollment in a given grade. And by having all the teachers who teach certain grades in the same building, classroom improvements can be achieved, experts say.

In Mundelein, officials hope teachers will have more time to work with pupils trying to master English as well as with other pupils.

The rationale, school board President Tim Johnson recently told a group of parents, is that “it seems to be common sense that it takes more energy to teach kids who aren’t speaking in their native language.”

Bilingual educators say it is rare in Illinois to see a switch to grade centers as a way to help students learn English.

State law requires districts to have a language-support program whenever the attendance in a school includes 20 or more students who speak the same foreign language.

Else Hamayan, chairwoman of the Illinois Advisory Council on Bilingual Education, said some districts adopt grade centers so they can spread out those pupils and stay below the maximum number to avoid the expense of providing a language program.

“Some districts [convert to grade centers] to prevent having to provide students with services,” said Hamayan.

Many Mechanics-Grove parents are unhappy with the grade-center idea.

Some have said they bought homes near the school so their children could walk there. They said grade centers would cause transportation headaches.And others wonder if it wouldn’t be better to concentrate bilingual programs at Washington.

“If you have problems in one school, you don’t bring it to all the schools,” said Scott Krinninger, 36, who said he bought his home in Mundelein five years ago so his children could attend Mechanics-Grove.

Some parents have pulled their children out of Washington School, officials said.

Hispanic parents generally know little about the grade-center plan, probably because the district has not held Spanish-language meetings to describe it, said Melissa Ray-Schaefer, director of the Mundelein Resource Center, which helps new Hispanic residents.

Some Hispanic parents said they are concerned about whether that district would continue to maintain its bilingual program, which has grown from two teachers five years ago to 10 this year.

The board hasn’t acted on the grade-center recommendation but hopes to have a decision before the November election, when the district will have a property tax increase on the ballot, its third attempt in two years.

Some board members said it has been hard convincing parents that change is necessary.

“This is part of the real frustration,” board member Jeff Masters said. “In the end, people really hate change, and it’s hard to come down to what’s best for all our kids.”

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