Schools exploring dual-language education

Hawthorn district envisions making all kids bilingual

It may be the hottest trend to flow across America since salsa replaced ketchup as the top condiment, and Vernon Hills-based Hawthorn Elementary District 73 could be the next to have a taste.

The Hawthorn school board is considering a dual language program for Spanish- and English-speaking students that could start as early as fall. The board could vote on the proposal tonight.

“In knowing a second language, students will be more marketable to the job force when they get older, they’ll be more culturally aware of their surroundings, and it will increase their overall mental capacity,” said Amanda Larrivee, one of three teachers who researched the issue for more than a year before bringing the proposal to the board this month.

Their proposal would offer the program as an option for students in kindergarten and first grade, regardless of their native tongue. As the program progresses, later grades would be added.

In response to the burgeoning Hispanic population, programs involving Spanish and English are sprouting up throughout Lake County and the country.

Lake County’s Hispanic population soared during the last decade. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 38,570 Hispanic people lived here in 1990. Today, that figure is 63,957, an increase of nearly 66 percent.

But the response of individual school districts varies. Some stick to traditional English-only classes geared toward Spanish- speaking children; others teach Spanish- and English-speaking children in mostly Spanish.

The latter is what’s proposed for Hawthorn Elementary District 73.

Under the proposal, 80 percent of the class for kindergartners and first-graders would be conducted in Spanish. That proportion would even out to 50-50 as students progressed through sixth grade.

Classrooms of 24 students would learn math, social studies and writing mostly in Spanish. English-speaking children would receive special attention to ensure they developed their English reading and writing skills.

The theory, based on numerous studies, is that learning English comes easier for all students because the prevailing culture is an English-speaking one.

The studies further conclude that ensuring Spanish-speakers have a firm grasp of one language before “erasing” it, as English- dominant classes tend to do, helps those children’s overall learning skills.

“The goal is to have all kids in the program bilingual, biliterate and bicultural,” said Roger Prosise, superintendent of Diamond Lake Elementary School District, which has a nearly identical program in its third year. “It’s working well.”

The idea has been such a hit among English-speaking students that Prosise has been forced to institute a lottery for admission.

He and other local educators said the cost of such programs is negligible, although recruiting bi-lingual teachers appears to be the largest stumbling block.

Because the approach has been “methodical, deliberate and research-based,” Hawthorn school board President James Clark said the idea looks promising.

“In general, I’m very receptive to the idea,” he said. “I grew up in Puerto Rico, immersed in a Spanish-speaking culture, and I understand the value of teaching kids a language that is not dominant.”

Trustee William Coli said the demand for the program needs to be gauged.

“I think we need to do a little more research, not into whether it’s going to be successful but whether there is a demand for it in District 73,” he said. “Before you have a party, you want to make sure enough people will show up.”

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