Learning together

Beardstown's bilingual program has American teachers and Hispanic students

BEARDSTOW—Trevor Cottle still remembers how helpless he felt back in 1992, when he was a newly arrived Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador who spoke little Spanish. So when he speaks English to the Mexican first-grade children he now teaches, he dons a big straw hat.

One school day just before Christmas, he wore the wide-brimmed hat while reading an English story aloud to his class at Gard Elementary School. He removed the hat later, when the pupils read a book aloud together in Spanish. The hat is one way that Cottle tries to ease the children from Spanish into English and to soften their culture shock.

“I consider this kind of like a safe haven,” he said of his classroom.

“They can interact with their peers. They can verbalize what they’re feeling if they need to.”

Cottle is one of a dozen teachers hired for a bilingual program that suddenly became necessary in Beardstown in the mid-1990s. During the 1990s, large numbers of Mexican immigrants began moving to this Illinois River town to work in the Excel Corp. meatpacking plant.

The immigrants have transformed the local schools just as they have changed churches, which offer Spanish-language services, and the business district, which has Mexican restaurants and a grocery store. The Cass County Star Gazette newspaper publishes a Spanish-language edition. The police department employs a Hispanic officer.

Beardstown’s 5,766 residents previously had little experience with minorities. The schools initially faced the same language barrier that the churches, local government offices and businesses have struggled against. They were ill-equipped to teach the first Spanish-speaking children who enrolled in the mid-1990 – but they had to learn quickly.

In 1995, the school district enrolled fewer than 10 Hispanic children. Today Kathy Haut, the school district’s bilingual coordinator, counts about 320 Spanish-speaking pupils, or about a fourth of the total enrollment.

The bilingual program has come a long way since 1995, when the small number of Hispanic children were placed in their appropriate grade levels with Spanish-speaking interpreters from the community. Today, the schools have separate bilingual preschool and elementary classrooms. Bilingual teachers also work in the junior-high and high schools, where the concentration of Spanish-speaking pupils is smaller.

“In a rural area, it’s really difficult to get bilingual people over here,” Haut said. “We’re trying to grow our own.”

The district sends teachers to Western Illinois University, about 40 miles north, for training in bilingual education.

State law requires “transitional bilingual” education for classes of 20 or more children who speak limited English.

“Transitional bilingual” operates on the theory that children learn English best by first learning to read and write in their native language and then gradually making the transition to English. The goal is to move children into mainstream, English-speaking classes after three years.

Of the 320 Hispanic pupils in Beardstown, about 112 attend English-speaking classes, Haut said.

The “transition” philosophy is evident throughout Trevor Cottle’s first-grade classroom, where most of the children have dark brown hair, light brown skin and Spanish names such as Reynaldo, Marisol and Carmen.

Cottle speaks Spanish while teaching his all-Hispanic class, then puts on his hat and switches to English to teach certain subjects, including reading. Working alongside him is aide Dolores Raya, who was a schoolteacher in Mexico. She helps Cottle with his newsletter, corrects his Spanish grammar and is a “very important link” to parents, Cottle said.

Just as the school day is divided into English and Spanish segments, letters of the alphabet are posted on the walls in both Spanish and English. The Spanish alphabet has a drawing of a shoe, or “zapato,” next to the letter “z,” while the English version has English hints. Elsewhere in the room, signs read, “calendar = el calendario,” and “clock = el reloj.”

On a table are stacked Spanish-language versions of “Hansel and Gretel,” Dr. Seuss’ “Green Eggs and Ham” and other children’s favorites.

“A lot of the children that I get, the younger children, they come directly from a Spanish-speaking country. They’re experiencing culture shock, a different language, different surroundings,” Cottle said. “They need a place where they can feel comfortable.”

Though the goal is to move students into English-speaking classrooms after three years, a child can take five to 10 years to really become fluent in English, Cottle said.

“It’s a process of acquiring a language,” and it’s not quick, he said.

Cottle spoke from experience. The 34-year-old teacher grew up in central and southern Illinois and studied very little Spanish before he lived in Ecuador – he’d taken high school Spanish for half a quarter but dropped it because he hated it. In Ecuador, he started dreaming in Spanish after about five months. When he left the country in 1994, two years after his arrival, he had grown into a strong speaker of Spanish, but still felt he had much to learn.

The launch of Beardstown’s “transitional bilingual” program has been criticized by some faculty members and others who believe that Mexican children should be immersed in English classrooms. California residents’ 1998 vote to ban bilingual education in that state did not help the cause for a transitional bilingual system in Beardstown, Cottle said.

“If they are thrust into an English-speaking classroom, there’s a chance their base” – Spanish -“will not be strong, and English will not be strong, either,” Cottle said of his pupils.

“They have to have that base, especially if there’s a Spanish-speaking home.”

Most of the bilingual teachers in Beardstown are, like the sandy-haired Cottle, of European descent, and they have widely varying Spanish skills. Many rely on native Spanish speakers for teachers’ aides, who work alongside them in their classrooms.

The aides, many of them immigrants themselves, are important not just to translate but to help bridge cultural differences with parents or talk empathetically with children struggling to adjust to a foreign culture, the teachers say.

“One of the most important things to remember is to put ourselves in their place,” said sixth-grade teacher Susan DeWitt, who spoke little Spanish when she was recruited from within the district to teach bilingual children. “Speaking English is different than reading about the Romans and Greeks in English.”

Haut, the program coordinator, added: “Would you like to learn Mexican history in Spanish?”

In Cottle’s first-grade class, about half his pupils’ families have moved to Beardstown directly from Mexico, while the rest lived in other states before settling in Beardstown.

Cottle works hard at making the study of English a comfortable experience. His young pupils are so used to seeing Cottle put on his big hat before he switches from Spanish to English that one girl raised her hand when he paused to translate an English word into Spanish in the story he was reading.

“You’re talking with the hat in Spanish,” she said, in English.

“Yes, I know,” he replied, also in English, “but sometimes I have to.”

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