The 1st graders in Maria Morales’ bilingual education class at Hibbard Elementary School in the Albany Park neighborhood can barely speak English, but Morales makes sure they hear a lot of the language every day.

Recently, during a science lesson, Morales talked primarily in Spanish about motion. But she also used complete English sentences in her presentation and translated key words.

“Pull,” Morales said as she closed a classroom door. “Halar.”

“Push,” Morales said, as the pupils tried to pronounce the word with her. “Empujar.”

The scene at Hibbard–an ethnically diverse school where students with no English background are taught 30 percent of the time in English and they finish bilingual education in an average of 2.8 years–may seem simple, but it actually is at the heart of a deeply emotional and increasingly complicated debate in Chicago and across the country:

How long should students remain in bilingual education?

At stake is the education of a burgeoning population of Hispanic children in the United States, even as immigration policy remains a politically heated issue. Moreover, as concern grows over the educational achievement of American students, the Latino population has an 11.6 percent high school dropout rate, surpassing all other racial or ethnic groups.

The conflicting opinions in the national debate were vividly illustrated this month at a public hearing in Chicago at Juarez High School, where schools officials found themselves locked into an emotional polemic with 300 parents, students, teachers and politicians about the issue.

The testimony ranged from tearful student Abril Medina’s shouting to panel members, “You don’t know how it feels to be in a room where everyone speaks English but you” to a reading by Yvonne Lau, of Loyola University’s Asian Institute, of a typed statement that said her organization fully recognized “the need for our students to learn English immediately.”

Many educators believe students in bilingual classes should be immersed in English as soon as possible, preferably within three years. Others contend that students need more time in bilingual instruction, up to seven years, so they can learn to think in English, as well as speak it.

No matter the view, the spotlight on bilingual education has intensified over the years, as an increasing number of immigrant students leave schools without command of English.

The Chicago school system, in fact, is as good a national laboratory for the debate as any, especially as educators struggle with students in “transitional academies” who are unable to meet standards to enter high school, including a significant number with language difficulties.

Bilingual education–the process of teaching a new language while providing basic instruction in subjects such as math, science and social studies in the student’s native language–has existed for years in special schools with ethnic themes. The first publicly funded programs began in 1963 in Miami. The Chicago Public Schools began federally funded transitional bilingual instruction in 1969 at Jirka and Komensky Elementary Schools and Froebel High School.

In the Chicago system, which has 268 schools with bilingual programs and 71,000 limited-English-proficient, or LEP, students, officials want to limit bilingual education for most students to three years. Board members are set to vote on the proposal, which is included in a new 55-page language and cultural education policy, next month.

Under the bilingual education component of the plan, most students would move out of bilingual education after three years under a flexible transition plan that would take into account a range of criteria, including several test scores and principal and teacher discretion. If deemed necessary, the student may spend a fourth year in bilingual education. Students with low scores after the fourth year would be enrolled in regular education classes but be required to participate in an after-school study program.

Across the country, meanwhile, most school districts with large immigrant populations generally do not restrict a student’s time in bilingual education. For example, bilingual education coordinators in the public school districts serving New York, Los Angeles, Houston and San Francisco all have programs that do not allow students to move out of bilingual education until they have passed a battery of proficiency exams. Officials at all the schools, however, say most students move out of their program after three or four years.

Many of the Chicago plan’s more high-profile detractors–including state Rep. Sonia Silva (D-Chicago) as well as organizations such as the Latino Institute and the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund, or MALDEF–say no change is needed because two-thirds of all students in the current program leave bilingual education after three years. Some even question the district’s motivation for making the changes.

“I think the administration may be responding to larger societal concerns,” said Rosa Abreu, the MALDEF staff attorney specializing in education. “I think it is due to a national phenomenon in kind of questioning what are the loyalties on the part of individuals who come from other countries.”

Board officials–many of them bilingual immigrants themselves–have disputed these charges. They say it was their appreciation for the immigrant student that spurred them to develop the detailed plan in the first place. The main goal of the new plan is to make all schools more accountable for teaching their students English and to ensure that the district is meeting the state’s guideline for bilingual education, which says students should spend three years in bilingual education and more time, if necessary.

“Some students have been in the program eight years or more,” said Armando Almendarez, head of the district’s language and cultural education division. “That’s just too long.”

Like many of the district’s administrators with immigrant backgrounds, Almendarez gives very personal examples of why he believes the system should push students to learn English as soon as possible.

“You come to this country for the opportunities that are made available,” said Almendarez, whose grandparents moved to the United States from Mexico during the Mexican Revolution. “In order to tap into those opportunities, you need to know English.”

Board supporters point to studies that say students are most successful when their separation from English-speaking students is kept at a minimum. Their foes, meanwhile, cite other reports that say students need four to seven years in bilingual education before they will have adequate cognitive skills in English.

While some schools push to move students out of bilingual education, others believe students should remain in the program until they are able to keep up with their peers whose native language is English.

At Pilsen Community Academy, a mostly Latino school that is about half LEP, Principal Ana Espinosa and her staff advocate an instruction program that does not move students out of bilingual education until they have mastered oral and cognitive skills. Nevertheless, the school has a relatively fast transition rate: Students at the school spend an average of 2.3 years in the program.

Recently, bilingual education teacher Alice Vera spoke in normal-paced English and listened patiently as her 3rd-grade students stood before the class and, one by one, read short essays contrasting the summer and winter seasons.

Though the children spoke in nearly flawless English, Vera predicted that many of her students would not be prepared for regular education next fall because they are still thinking in Spanish.

“The basic communication skills develop faster,” Vera said. “The cognitive just can’t come as quickly. It’s just not possible.”

Some educators believe bilingual education works best when kept to a minimum. Others argue that proficiency requires years of instruction. Students are caught in the middle.

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