After three hours of heated, tearful and even nasty debate, the Chicago Board of Education Wednesday unanimously approved a crackdown that seeks to limit bilingual classes to three years.
Though more than three-quarters of the 300-plus people who packed board headquarters to address the plan supported it, opponents were the most vociferous.
They accused board President Gery Chico of falling away from his Mexican roots, labeled his boss — Mayor Daley — “a monster” and said board staff had packed the chambers with paid “whores” who support the plan.
About 71,000 of the system’s 425,000 students are covered by the program.
Longtime community activist Walter “Slim” Coleman, wearing a new Methodist collar as co-pastor of two churches, jabbed his finger at Chico and told him “you have sinned today” for organizing appearances by principals who defended the crackdown — an accusation Chico denied.
Redfaced and screaming, Coleman called the plan “a farce” that was missing critical instructional standards and measures for determining when students were ready to leave the bilingual program. Board staff said later that both will be in place by the time the program kicks off this fall.
Even nationally, the debate over bilingual education has raised emotions. Some see attempts to tighten such programs as typical of an anti-immigrant sentiment; others say children languish too long in the programs.
Last year alone, schools Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas said, more than 100 students were in at least their 12th year of the program, and none were special education students. The numbers jibe with a 1996 Chicago-Sun-Times report on bilingual education.
Board policy chief Leonard Dominguez said one principal found a student in his 14th year of the program. He said previous administrations had “cooked the books” and “spun” the statistics to hide such data.
Most disturbing, said the plan’s organizer, Armando Almendarez, are new statistics from the board indicating that the longer Spanish-speaking students are in the program, the worse they perform in their native language. Spanish language reading tests show that eighth-graders in the program read in Spanish at fifth-grade levels — more than three years lower than the national averages, he said.
Chile native Maria Pizarro said the system should push dual fluency. She said, “We don’t like Latinos like Gery Chico, who are unable to make themselves understood in Spanish.”
“I’m of Mexican descent and very proud of it,” responded Chico, the product of a Mexican father and a Lithuanian-Greek mother who both spoke English at home. Chico took Spanish in college.
“Whether I struggle in Spanish, my heart is in the right place,” he said.
The plan limits bilingual education classes to three years, but allows for an extra year if needed, and even more time in special cases. During their first year of being mainstreamed, students would be offered extra tutoring — which many supporters said was missing in the past.