U-46 studying bilingual program's pluses, minuses

Imagine taking a science class in Poland and you only speak conversational Polish.

That is the kind of situation bilingual students in Elgin Area School District U-46 can find themselves in if they get out of their bilingual classes too soon.

They may be able to talk about their summer vacation; learning about gravity is different.

“Sometimes people (think) that because a child speaks English that he can do all the coursework in English, and that is not true,” said Carmen Rodriguez, chairperson of the ESL/bilingual division at Bartlett High School.

During the past two years, some members of the English-speaking public, including a member of the board of education, have been critical of the district’s bilingual program, saying U-46 students should learn English faster than the four to five years it often takes.

In turn, bilingual educators say research shows children will not succeed as English speakers and writers if they have not developed thinking, speaking and writing skills in their native languages first.

A special committee will spend the summer and fall studying all of those concerns. The group is expected to recommend changes to the bilingual program, effective for the 2000-01 school year, in November.

Suggestions could include:

– An English-only program;

– An “early exit” program students would finish in less than three years;

– A “late exit” program taking five to seven years;

– A “dual language” program that teaches a second language to a class made up of half native-English speakers and half native-Spanish speakers.

Despite those options, educators say they do not expect drastic recommendations.

“We aren’t looking at dismantling the bilingual program as it currently exists,” said Ann Riebock, assistant superintendent of educational services and accountability.

That is because most of the parents who pull their children out of the program say they are doing so because of transportation-related issues, rather than because of the way the program is set up. Many bilingual children are bussed from their neighborhoods to other U-46 schools.

Whatever the committee decides to do, the recommendations will be based in part on what the district’s bilingual families say about the existing program.

The suggestions could present a fresh approach. The committee may suggest individual schools – or regions of schools – should choose which approach is best for their students, Riebock said.

Jack Fields, director of bilingual education in U-46, said offering different approaches at schools could pose a problem for families who move frequently.

If a Spanish-speaking child starts an all-English kindergarten program at Hillcrest Elementary School in Elgin and leaves at the end of second grade, for example, she will likely struggle under a different program because both her English and Spanish skills will be limited, Fields said.

“Two years of ESL is not sufficient for children,” Fields said.

Of course, exceptions exist. A bilingual kindergartner at Heritage Elementary School in Streamwood will transition into a first grade English-speaking classroom this fall after only one year in the bilingual program, said Rodriguez, who was assistant principal at Heritage last year.

“It depends on the child,” Rodriguez said, adding that she favors children spending five to seven years in the bilingual program if they need to. “This child spoke English and was reading certain words in English … and had older siblings at home that spoke English.”

Any changes to the bilingual program could cost money, and the committee needs to be aware of that, Fields said.

Each year, U-46 receives thousands of dollars from the state for bilingual education, and if children are in the program for less time, the district will get less money, Fields said.

“That’s not good or bad; it’s just a fact,” said Fields, who also plans to study how changing the amount of bussing U-46 does for bilingual students will affect costs. “I’m going to spend time this summer digging out those factors.”

The committee, which started its work last fall, also plans to learn how well bilingual students are woven into school activities – everything from sports to band, said Jeannine Seyfried, a Canton Middle School parent who serves on the bilingual committee.

“We’re looking for places where (the program) is falling short,” Seyfried said. “There’s always improving that can be done.”

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