Bilingual education began more than two decades ago as a means of helping non-English speaking students make a smooth transition into regular classes.
But bilingual education has been a subject of controversy, as critics question whether teaching students in their native tongue hurts a child’s ability to learn English.
One need look no further than Elgin’s Unit School District 46–where 4,000 students are enrolled in bilingual programs–to see how easily the debate can divide parents, teachers and school board members.
“I believe in transitional bilingual (education),” said school board member Doug Heaton, “but we need to do it quicker. We can’t afford to take five to seven years.”
Concerns about bilingual education surfaced in recent weeks when Heaton stated during a public meeting that a child in a Puerto Rican public school has “a greater chance of being exposed to English than a student at U-46.”
Heaton is leading a group of frustrated parents–some of them Hispanic–who suggest Elgin’s bilingual programs should do more to teach children English.
Heaton said he made his remarks after reading an educational journal that profiled a Puerto Rican bilingual education program in which children were taught in English for up to 90 minutes a day. The article noted that the program’s math and science books were written in English.
But other parents of children in Elgin’s bilingual program, mostly children of Hispanic ancestry, said placing too much emphasis on English may be unwise. They believe children must first learn lessons in Spanish before they can be expected to comprehend them in English.
They point to research that shows children need five to seven years to learn English at an academic level.
“Studies show that kids who are solid in their primary language go on to bigger and better things,” said David Dominguez, vice president of the district’s Bilingual Parents Advisory Council. “If critics can show us that (a shorter, more aggressive program) was a success, we would be willing to look at that.”
In the 1970s, the Illinois General Assembly passed a law requiring a school to provide bilingual education when it has 20 or more students who need lessons in a language other than English. The law was designed to provide non-English speaking children an equal opportunity to succeed in the classroom.
During its 13 years of existence, Elgin’s bilingual program has grown from 1,000 students to slightly more than 4,000. Of that number, 600 are kindergartners. The district is the state’s second-largest, with more than 30,000 students.
Two percent of its bilingual students have been enrolled more than seven years. Seventy percent have been enrolled fewer than five years, and the remaining 28 percent have been in the program five to seven years.
Jack Fields, director of the U-46 bilingual programs, said the program was created when school officials believed students could be eased into English-only classrooms in two or three years. Since then, he said, research has proven more time is needed.
“Bilingual education has changed a lot,” Fields said. “We have a better trained workforce. We understand better how children learn a language. We have a research base that shows the child’s first-language skills in relation to their success.”
Elgin schools have adopted a teaching method that moves students into English-only classrooms in five to seven years.
Fields said he believes some of the anger directed at bilingual education is rooted in a wave of what he called anti-immigrant sentiment that has surfaced in the United States in recent years.
In California, for instance, school administrators find themselves addressing concerns about preserving English as the official language.
In June, California voters in a binding referendum will decide whether to abolish mandatory bilingual education programs.
“There are some who feel if California goes English-only, that same anti-immigrant feeling will increase pressure on (bilingual) services in other parts of the country,” Fields said.