Schools' Bilingual Plan Is Challenged

Latino parents upset by revisions

Saying they have been left out of the planning process, about 50 angry parents and Latino organization members stormed the main office of the Chicago Public Schools administration Tuesday and demanded that officials delay any vote on a revised bilingual education policy until their concerns are heard.

But board officials, who are expected to vote Feb. 25 on the policy, which includes a controversial plan to limit bilingual instruction to three years for most students, said they would not back down from their proposal. They did agree, however, to meet with five representatives from the loosely-knit coalition later this week.

In the waiting room of the offices of the board’s top leaders, Latino parents and members of the Chicago Multilingual Parents Council, the Latino Institute, Centro Sin Fronteras and several local school councils stood face-to-face with CEO Paul Vallas and division heads Armando Almendarez and Carlos Azcoitia, accusing them of purposely excluding parents from the reform process.

“What has not been incorporated are the concerns that have been raised in the public meetings,” said Antonio Delgado, a community advocate with the Latino Institute. “The Chicago Public Schools is not doing a favor to the children by providing bilingual education to the students. It is mandated by the federal government and state law.”

Board leaders countered by saying they need a policy that sets standards for all schools and one that is better aligned with state guidelines. The Illinois School Code requires that districts keep pupils in bilingual education “for a period of 3 years or until such time as he achieves a level of English language skills which will enable him to perform successfully in classes in which instruction is given only in English, whichever shall first occur.”

“We must have more accountability,” Azcoitia told the group. “We must follow the state law.”

The episode Tuesday was the latest development in a growing debate over bilingual education in the Chicago schools. At issue is the education of the district’s growing Latino population–about 32 percent of the schools–and the political and decision-making influence their parents have in the system. According to board records, about 81 percent of the district’s 71,000 Limited-English Proficient (LEP) students are Latino. Meanwhile, the dropout rate for Hispanic students in Chicago hovers around 43 percent, according to the board’s language and culture division.

The proposed policy is part of the district’s master plan for education reform. In addition to the three-year timetable, it would provide for more professional development and require teachers to obtain bilingual education certification more quickly.

Board officials contend that more and more students are remaining in bilingual education for more than three years and that those who do are falling behind their peers academically. They specifically point to test scores on La Prueba, a Spanish-language test of grammar school pupils’ reading and math skills that is given to students in bilingual education.

For instance, recent scores on the reading portion of the exam indicate that pupils in 1st and 2rd grades were performing at grade level. But the scores steadily declined for students in bilingual education for the 3rd through 8th grades. For example, the 1996-97 median for 2nd graders was 2.0 but the 7th grade median was only 5.0.

“The bottom line is the longer you institutionalize students in that program the longer they lag behind,” Vallas said. “We want to bring accountability to bilingual education, just like we’ve brought accountability to everything else.”

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