Eight pairs of eyes are glued on Washington Elementary School kindergarten teacher Rosie Mosquera as she teaches a lesson about American Indian life.
Seated in a circle on the classroom floor, the students attentively listen to their teacher. Their arms shoot into the air when Mosquera asks a question, all of them eager to participate in the discussion.
The scene at the Mundelein school is similar to countless kindergarten classrooms around the country, except for one big difference: Mosquera and her students are speaking exclusively in Spanish.
Starting this year, the Mundelein elementary school district is offering pre-kindergarten and kindergarten Spanish-language classes for students who have little or no English skills.
“With a regular teacher in English, it’s hard for them to catch a concept because they don’t understand what the teacher is saying,” Mosquera said. “But when I teach in their native language, they interact more. They pick it up easier.”
Mundelein isn’t alone with this approach. As the Hispanic population expands throughout Lake County, Spanish-language classes are growing in popularity. Proponents believe teaching children in their native language first and gradually phasing them into English-only classes is better than forcing them to first learn reading, writing and arithmetic in English.
But there are differing opinions. Some area schools promote more English-heavy methods of educating Spanish-speaking students.
In some districts, such as Wauconda Unit District 118, children split time between English-language classes and special lessons in Spanish. In others, they are taught in traditional English-speaking classrooms, but receive extra help from tutors and teachers.
“All districts offer some sort of program,” said Dan Coles, human resources director for District 118. “And they differ according to the needs of their students. We’ve found that our bilingual program meets our needs.”
Lake County’s Hispanic population has soared during the past decade. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 38,570 Hispanic people lived here in 1990. Today, that figure is 63,957 – an increase of nearly 66 percent.
The population change is reflected in schools throughout central, southern and western Lake County.
In Wauconda, the number of students in the district’s bilingual program – which transitions students from their first language into English – exploded this year by almost 100 percent, increasing from 113 to 205 children. The majority of those students speak Spanish, although some speak other languages, including Russian, Polish and Chinese, Superintendent John Barbini said.
In Diamond Lake Elementary District 76 near Mundelein, an estimated 36 percent of the student population during the 1999-2000 school year was Hispanic – up 10 percent from five years earlier.
Mundelein Elementary District 75 has experienced a similar population increase. Nearly 200 children are enrolled in the bilingual program – up 212 percent from five years ago, when only 63 children were in the program.
Schools with larger Hispanic populations are required to provide at least some instruction in Spanish. According to the Illinois State Board of Education, school districts with 20 or more students speaking the same foreign language in one school are required to provide a transitional bilingual program. This consists of English- speaking practice, as well as native language instruction.
In the Wauconda district, depending on their English-language proficiency, native Spanish-speaking students spend a portion of the day studying in bilingual classes and the rest of the day in regular English-speaking classes with support from tutors or teachers, Coles said.
“Most of the students come in with zero to little English,” said Elizabeth Kuchnia, who was hired by Wauconda this year as a full- time bilingual teacher. “As they start learning more English, we use less Spanish. Later, they only need a word or two in Spanish to help them. They really pick it up quickly that way.”
Students seem to agree with the approach.
“It was really hard in the beginning, but we’ve learned English quickly,” said 13-year-old Jose Muro, a Wauconda Middle School student.
Natalia Rodriguez, 12, moved to Wauconda two months ago with no English skills, but began using English phrases within a short time.
“I like learning English and I like the way we’re taught,” she said. “I hope to be better at English soon.”
The students will continue in Wauconda’s bilingual program until they are fluent enough to be enrolled in all English-speaking classes.
Until this year, Spanish-speaking elementary students in Mundelein were placed in traditional classes and were pulled out during the day for extra lessons in Spanish or English, depending on their skill level.
Administrators changed the program after becoming concerned that more could be done to properly educate the students. They went with the Spanish-only approach after reading studies that showed Hispanic students who first have strong skills in their native language are more successful in elementary school – and in later education – than children who are primarily taught in English, said Washington Elementary Principal Shawn Walker.
“We’re trying to provide a more solid foundation in their native language, which the research shows will provide a smoother transition into the English language in the upper grades,” he said.
If it is deemed a success, Mundelein’s new bilingual program likely will expand to the first grade next year, Walker said.
But many other school districts offer other programs for Spanish-speaking students. One of the oldest is called English as a Second Language, or ESL. Under the program, Hispanic students with some English skills are placed in traditional classes but receive extra help during the school day in English.
By the time they reach high school, Spanish-speaking students should be ready to take classes in English, some educators say. It’s often more difficult for teens to pick up a new language than it is for younger children.
As a result, educators believe Spanish-speaking students should have at least some English skills when they enter high school.
“I think it’s a whole different ball game for older kids,” said Connie Marshall, head of the ESL, bilingual and foreign language programs at Mundelein High School. “It’s just harder for older kids to learn a second language.”
In the Round Lake area schools, some Hispanic students are in Spanish-language classes while others are in ESL programs. Assignments are based on the students’ knowledge of English, district spokeswoman Kris Nobilio said.
In Grayslake Elementary District 46, Spanish-speaking students are taught in English. Many, however, are helped by bilingual teachers who act as tutors in class. Others are pulled out for special lessons in their native language.
“We’ve had children come in who do not speak a single word of English,” said Mary Koski, the district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. “So they start from pictures, from the very beginning, just like you would with a small child.”
Grayslake educators believe their approach better prepares students for a transition into English.
“This approach seems to work well here,” Koski said. “I think, particularly at younger ages when they’re just learning to read, it’s easier for them to start in English. And even when they’re older, if they’re in an English-speaking class surrounded by English-speaking kids and teachers helping them, within a short time they become very fluent.”
Spanish-speaking students in Gurnee Elementary District 56 also are taught in English and pulled out during the day for lessons in Spanish.
Spanish-language classes aren’t practical, said Superintendent Ben Martindale, because the schools’ Spanish-speaking population isn’t large enough to make it worthwhile.
But as is the case across the county, the number of Spanish- speaking students in Gurnee schools is increasing every year. And as that population grows, the schools’ programs will change, Martindale said.
The district already is planning to replace its basic transitional program with a more comprehensive one.
“You need to ensure that you offer a program that can best meet students’ needs,” he said.