Chicago school officials are moving to put a three-year limit on a bilingual education program that has allowed some students to remain in it their entire school careers.

The proposal, which could take effect starting next fall, will seek to move most bilingual students out of those classes into mainstream English classes after three years. The plan was drafted by Armando Almendarez, chief of the public schools’ office of language and cultural education.

Board of Education President Gery Chico, who promised public hearings on the plan, said Monday that “we will not be outrageous or outlandish in our approach” but added that the bilingual program was designed to be “transitional.”

“Principals have been coming and telling us this is a problem,” Chico said. “Some students stay eight, nine or more years in the bilingual program.”

There are 71,000 students in the bilingual program; more than 80 percent speak Spanish.

A 1996 Chicago Sun-Times analysis showed that of those who left the program between 1993 and 1994, only 22.8 percent moved on within three years. Those still in the program included 121 students in their 12th year of bilingual education, and the vast majority were not special education students.

Under the proposal, which must be approved by the School Board, after-school tutoring and Saturday classes would be available to students who need more help. Also, bilingual teachers who do not have full teaching certification will be strongly urged by administrators to get their complete teaching certificates, officials said.

Chico said he didn’t anticipate any funding problems.

Millie Rivera, executive director of the Latino Institute, expressed reservations about the plan. She said the board’s own study showed that “students in bilingual programs are more likely to graduate high school than children in regular programs, and that they are achieving at a higher level. It doesn’t look too broke to me, so I’m hopeful there’s not a need to fix it.”

But Juan Rangel, executive director of the United Neighborhood Organizations group, applauded the idea of getting students ready to “compete in the real world” with proficiency in English.

Almendarez and Chico said there could be exceptions for individual students.

Contributing: Rosalind Rossi

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