Even numbers of English-speaking and Spanish-speaking students would be mixed into one kindergarten classroom so they can teach each other their languages under a program approved by West Chicago Elementary District 33 officials.
The pilot dual-language program would happen in only one kindergarten classroom at first but eventually would branch out to other schools, officials said.
After more than an hour of discussion and debate, District 33 board members this week narrowly approved a plan to introduce the program Thursday.
Some board members wanted the community to have more input before deciding whether the program should be started. A Nov. 30 districtwide meeting is scheduled to inform the public about the program.
Approval came on a 4-3 vote after a motion to table the issue failed by one vote. Voting was tight even though each board member suggested they supported the program.
Board President Barbara Toney told the group an approval by the board sends a message to the community.
“When we’re making education decisions, it’s up to this board to make those decisions,” she said. “Why are we asking for the support of people who don’t even understand what a dual-language program is?”
Toney said she wanted the public to understand the program but not have the final say on its future.
Superintendent Jon Mink pointed to the board’s own strategic plan that called for such a program, and several educators spoke on behalf of the program.
The Nov. 30 community meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. at the American Legion Hall, 123 Main St., may help determine which of the district’s six elementary schools would get the program first.
The program would be voluntary for parents who want to enroll their children. Up to 28 children would fill the classroom and it would be split in half by language. Parents would be required to commit their children for at least three years of the program.
Teachers who already instruct bilingual programs in the district said the program will help Spanish-speaking students as much as English-speaking children.
“This program will value their language,” said Sal Tamayo, a bilingual teacher at Turner Elementary School. “We’re a business – that’s how I look at it – and we’re making a product for the future. And all the research says we will need to speak three languages in the future: English, Spanish and computer.”
The dual-language program has been in effect in several districts around the country but is fairly rare in the area, officials said. Proponents of the issue point to solid and improved test scores of class participants.
Board member Robert Lemon worried that too much time was going to be spent on learning Spanish. Under the program, students would split time learning disciplines in English and Spanish. For the first three years it would be about 80 percent Spanish and 20 percent English.
Karen Mulattieri, director of language assistance, said the reason for such a wide gap is that Spanish-speaking students are surrounded by the English language in everyday life.
“Fifty-fifty doesn’t do as much for strong English speakers,” she said. “We need to give the students a reason to speak Spanish.”
The district also is applying for a federal grant to help fund the program, but it is prepared to start without federal funding. Some board members who voted against approval were worried they were starting a program without it being properly funded.
“Anything worth doing is worth doing right,” said board member Melanie Hansberger. “This is a program that will not work if the community is not sold on it.”
Marie Doll, the board’s vice president, said the board should trust the committee that had studied the issue for more than two years.