All. Todos! Am. Soy!
The teacher fires the words at his students.
But. Pero! Buy. Comprar!
They shout back the answers.
“Pablo, give me a sentence with black.”
“I have a black hair.”
“No, not a black hair. Just black hair.”
“I have black hair.”
In 10 minutes, Arthur Cortez has called on the 30 students in his 2d- grade classroom at least three times each, asking for sentences and definitions and demanding correct pronunciation.
This is bilingual education at its best. His students hear crisp, perfect English and clear, melodious Spanish.
“What I try to do is teach the child English as quickly as possible. Clean, correct English,” explains Cortez, a teacher at Gary School on the Southwest Side. “But I don’t want them to forget Spanish. That is a precious inheritance that they should never, never lose.”
To make bilingual education work effectively takes time, commitment and a clear understanding of its goals. Faced with not enough qualified teachers, insufficient supplies, poor testing of students and opposition from principals, schools fight an uphill battle. Urban schools also must overcome poverty, crowded conditions and dilapidated buildings.
But it can be done. Several schools, in Chicago’s inner city and its less strife-ridden suburbs, turn out thousands of foreign-born children who are at least conversationally fluent in English. And they do so within three years, the average time students spend in bilingual programs. The way it is done is a lesson in caring, cooperation and compromise.
The most crucial element in a successful bilingual education program is highly skilled teachers. They are not easy to come by.
Bilingual teachers must be fluent in both languages, and they must understand how to teach in two languages. They must do double duty, moving beyond reading and math to transmit a new culture while respecting the old. They must introduce children to the wonder that perro and dog, or Thu ba and Tuesday, mean the same thing.
“I will not hire anyone who doesn’t speak English well,” says Lee Mydill, director of state and federal programs for Elk Grove Township Elementary District 59, where there are 280 students speaking 17 languages. “Once I find a good teacher, and it’s not easy, I’m going to make sure I keep her.”
One of Mydill’s treasured finds is Harriette Herrera. Herrera, who is married to a Venezuelan, has lived in several Latin American countries and speaks seven languages: English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and now Korean.
“I tell my students I’m from the moon,” Herrera says.
But the shortage of well-trained bilingual teachers in Chicago and nationwide forces many schools to hire people without sufficient training. Many lack a solid command of English. Those whose main job is to teach English as a second language acknowledge that they aren’t sure which techniques work and which don’t.
George Munoz, president of the Chicago Board of Education, estimates that the system needs an additional 300 qualified bilingual teachers to replace those now in classrooms but not up to par. Munoz and other school officials recently went to Puerto Rico to recruit Spanish-speaking teachers, as did officials from other large cities. The need is also great in Asian and Middle Eastern languages.
A new state law will expand the reach of bilingual education and increase the cost to schools. In the next few years, it will create an estimated 600 jobs, as the number of children getting special help to learn English triples in the suburbs. The state is working on tougher certification requirements to make sure bilingual teachers are properly trained. Teachers are now required only to pass a test showing that they are fluent in two languages. In the future, they also will be required to take 18 hours of graduate courses.
If a school manages to find the right teachers, it must then make up for a lack of adequate materials and a deficient testing procedure.
Alicia Ragawski and Mary Lou Guiterrez, coordinators of a program at Burns School on the West Side, developed their own exam to make up for gaps in what they see as a subjective and inadequate oral test, called the Functional Language Assessment.
The assessment is given to students from kindergarten through high school to determine their placement in a bilingual program. Teachers say it does not discern key indicators, such as learning disabilities or varying levels of maturity.
Ragawski points to Graciela Leon, 11, who just moved to Chicago from California, to demonstrate the inadequacies.
Graciela passed the oral test, but not Ragawski’s. If Ragawski had not given her additional written and oral exams, she might have been placed in a regular classroom, left there to fail until someone realized that she cannot read in English or Spanish.
“To make a program work well, it takes a tremendous amount of time,” Ragawski says. “It’s not something that happens by itself. There has to be a lot of evaluation, a lot of testing. We overexert ourselves to make this program work.”
In Chicago, Hispanic schools also fight overcrowding.
The green-and-white building where Arthur Cortez drills his students, for instance, doubles as a park field house after school. There are Ping-Pong tables against a wall, boxes of supplies stacked in corners and room for little more than three long rows of desks and 30 students.
But none of the students notices the crowded conditions that have pushed them out of the main building at Gary and into this out-of-the-way field house. They see only Cortez.
They are eager to be recognized. Hands shoot into the air.
“Chew,” the boy says.
“Shoe,” Cortez corrects, bringing a finger to his lips and pushing the air out through his teeth.
“Shoe,” the boy responds.
At Gary, the support of the school’s principal and the willingness of teachers to do double duty resulted in at least one sign of success: 14 of the school’s top 30 students were formerly in the bilingual program.
Because many students in bilingual education come from poor families, schools must help them overcome the disadvantages they bring to the classroom.
“Bilingual education does not exist in a vacuum,” Munoz said. “The students it serves are often poor, transient, and come from homes where survival rather than education is the No. 1 priority.”
Schools with large bilingual programs tend to be in poorer neighborhoods, which are often ports of entry for immigrants. Buildings are crowded and in disrepair. Bilingual education is called upon to make up with pride for what is lacking in capital.
At the McCormick School, 2712 S. Sawyer Ave., 98 percent of the school’s 1,000 students are Hispanic. Though the school is covered with gang graffiti and in need of paint, teachers brighten bulletin boards with pictures of graduates and stars for high-achieving students. Several students wear red sweatshirts with the school’s little devil mascot.
Bilingual teachers must strike a balance between English language instruction and an amount of native language instruction acceptable to parents.
At the Whittier School, 1900 W. 23d St., where 95 percent of the students are Mexican, parents feel strongly about their past.
“My goal for my children is for them to read, write and speak well, both in English and Spanish,” Ana Morena says. “My youngest child already speaks better English than Spanish. I want my family to be able to talk together.”
Morena, who has two children at Whittier, visits the school regularly with other parents to help out in classrooms and volunteer where they are needed. Parental involvement, rare in many inner-city schools, helps reinforce cultural ideas while freeing teachers to concentrate on English.
Many bilingual teachers take a special interest in their students because they can personally attest to the difficulties involved in learning a foreign language. Whittier’s coordinator, Maria O’Hara, recalls the trauma of 1st grade, when she didn’t speak English and got no extra help from teachers.
O’Hara, of Mexican descent, says she works at developing a program that will soften the experience.
“It was really painful,” O’Hara says. “For the first 1 1/2 years I didn’t understand what was going on. My parents spoke no English. My classmates wouldn’t translate for me. They called me a dummy. I made it, but why should we put kids through that?”
In contrast, the experience of Emmanuel Guerrero, 9, a 3d grader at McCormick, has been positive.
“When I come to this school I know a little of English and now I know much,” Emmanuel said. Emmanuel’s day is about half English and half Spanish; he reads well in both. “I want to be a doctor in Mexico when I grow up.”
Given all the right factors, there are still some things that cannot be resolved in three years, the time state law recommends that a student spend in a program.
“Three years is fine if the kid has all the right things going for him,” says Whittier principal Raphael Guajardo. “If he has two parents at home, if he doesn’t go back to Mexico for two months every winter, if he is in a small class, if he has a qualified teacher.
“Otherwise, many times, three years isn’t going to be enough.” Wednesday: Two languages for everyone?
The young immigrants Chicago area schools are struggling to teach non-English-speaking children from all over the world. This is one in a series of reports on how well schools meet the challenge.