Maria Lorenzo must want to pinch herself when she looks at the bilingual/English as a Second Language education program as it exists today in River Trails School District 26.
Lorenzo got the program going in the small Mount Prospect-based school district roughly 20 years ago. At the time, she was the only teacher trained to instruct students with limited English skills. “It was really a ‘Little Red Schoolhouse’ kind of atmosphere then,” said Lorenzo, who now teaches second grade at Euclid Elementary School. “We’ve come a long way.”
Today, the district employs nine full-time teachers and a bilingual social worker to teach children with limited proficiency in English. Numerous additional teachers are training to receive English as a Second Language certification.
Officials say the program has been able to keep pace with the demographic changes that have taken place in the Mount Prospect area over the last 20 years.
“The needs of the community have changed,” said Euclid Assistant Principal Lucy Cerwin, who is also the district’s bilingual education coordinator. “If we’re going to educate our students properly, we have to make sure they have the required mastery of English.”
Parents of children with limited English skills are given a choice of learning programs. In the bilingual program, students are taught in Spanish, and English is gradually introduced. In the English as a Second Language program, the students are taught in English.
As prescribed by state law, students can participate in either program in kindergarten through third grade. Starting in fourth grade, students are taught in mainstream, English-only classes.
But that doesn’t mean that students in grades four and higher who still need help with English are left in the cold.
The district offers several resources, including a “newcomers” program for students new to the country, to help students through the fifth grade with English literacy issues.
The program serves a growing population of District 26 students for whom English is not the native language, Cerwin said. According to the most recent Illinois school report card, 12.7 percent of the district’s students have limited proficiency in English. That amounts to about 221 students.
“We definitely keep busy,” Cerwin said.
Lorenzo said the rewards of teaching in the bilingual or ESL program far outweigh whatever challenges might exist.
“You really see the growth in the kids,” she said. “That’s what I love about it.”