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Bilingual programs see growth, challenges

By A.M. Cole—Evelin Luna carries herself with an air of confidence uncommon for a 15-year-old. She is comfortable around adults, aware of the issues concerning the local Latino community and unafraid to address the Urbana School Board in her native language. It wasn't always so.
Born in Veracruz, Mexico, Luna moved with her family to Urbana when she was 11, leaving her father behind.

"I had no English in me at all," she said. "It was pretty hard at the beginning, because I didn't even know how to say "˜hi.' "

Now a freshman at Urbana High School, Luna credits the school system for programs that helped her and other Spanish-speaking students overcome language barriers in a new country. By law, Illinois school districts must provide a bilingual curriculum if there are more than 20 students in the district who speak the same native language.


English Language Learner (ELL): a student learning English.
Bilingual education: A specific educational model tailored to students with little or no exposure to the English language. Classrooms have less students than native English speaking classes. Students learn the same concepts as their peers not in the program but at a slightly slower rate in order to ensure cognition and understanding. At the beginning of the program, students recieve 80 percent of their class time in their native language and 20 percent of their class time in English. By fifth grade, the ratio is inverted. Support is offered in Middle and High school but no designated classrooms are made avalible. Priority is placed on learning and understanding English, not necessarily retaining or cultivating the same fluency in their native language.
English as a Second Language (ESL): These programs operate parallel to regular school curriculum. Students usually have some exposure to English and know enough to be able to understand a majority of their schoolwork. ESL students are placed in classrooms with native English speakers but they are taken out for a certain amount of time during the day in order to ensure that students understand the concepts being taught. ESL classrooms usually only have a few students at a time to offer more personalized understanding.
 

Bilingual classrooms in Champaign and Urbana are made up of mostly Latino students whose first language is Spanish. Non-native speakers are not required to enroll in the program but the number of students who need these various linguistic resources has been slowly rising over the years. Recently, both districts have been required to slash their budgets and rethink the way they educate their students. Urbana was at risk of losing a cornerstone in communication when its Latino Parent Liaison position was on the chopping block.

In Unit 4, the conversion of two elementary schools to magnet schools has parents and teachers worried about the quality of their students' education. Champaign and Urbana schools recorded a 16 percent total increase in the number of non-native English speaking bilingual students between 2006 and 2009, according to data from the district offices.

In 2006, 19 percent of students in Illinois were Latino. Now, Latino students make up about 21 percent of the Illinois student body, according to the Illinois State Board of Education. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, a project of the Pew Research Center, 1,410,000 (81 percent) of the 1,738,000 Latinos living in Illinois speak a language other than English at home "” either Spanish, Portuguese or a regional dialect.

Of those speaking another language at home, 706,000 speak English well, while 705,000 cannot, the center reported. Students in bilingual programs begin their schooling in kindergarten with 80 percent of their curriculum taught in Spanish and the rest in English. As they progress from grade to grade, the curriculum shifts to more English-dominant lessons with students learning primarily in English by fourth grade.

But anyone who has ever tried to learn another language knows that the road to language fluency is long and rocky.

"A language barrier in the United States is a severe disadvantage, especially for students," said Jorge Chapa, professor of sociology and Latino studies at the University of Illinois. "Directly, it's an impediment to learning and participation."

Lucia Maldonado came to the United States from Mexico 14 years ago and knows from firsthand experience what it's like to struggle for language fluency; it took her three years to get a good grasp on the English language. The 44-year-old is now the Latino parent liaison for Urbana School District 116 and serves as a bridge between non-native English speaking parents and the schools.

Serving primarily as a communicator, Maldonado is involved in parent-teacher conferences, notifying parents of missing immunizations, illnesses at school, and explaining the middle school and high school processes and transitions. She tries to close the cultural gap between schools, parents and students that also inhibits language acquisition.

"Lots of schools expect parents to be involved," Chapa said. "If the teachers are mainly English speakers and the parents are primarily Spanish speakers, that's one big barrier between parents being involved, which is also an impediment to children's academic success."

Because parents weren't getting all the information they needed about the school system, Maldonado made it a priority to increase bilingual modes of communication.

"There's no translation system, all the information is in English [and these families], what can they do?" Maldonado said. "Parents push students to learn English quick and become bilingual. They need kids to learn English and translate."

Because children adapt to new cultures more easily than their parents, new families who come to the United States often rely on their children to help navigate institutional systems like health care and doctor's office visits, insurance plans and payment schedules, bills and school enrollment just to name a few.

"The kids keep growing up with more responsibilities and so many parents struggle with their kids," Maldonado said.

Maldonado said children who grow up with these responsibilities adopt a more independent attitude, reflective of the United States culture. That in turn creates stress for parents because they are still trying to raise their children within the parameters of the culture of their home country.

"It's not just a language barrier but a cultural one," Maldonado said. She realized she had to get the children connected to the community. "The Latinos were not participating in after school programs, they were going home and not seeing the school as a place" for them.

Maldonado said she created after-school programs for Latina students because she fears the girls don't get enough information about their community, especially when it comes to safe sex practices. The group is a safe space where the students can discuss important issues and areas of concern.

But, Maldonado's job description isn't confined to the walls of the Urbana schools. She spends time with families in need of assistance, connecting them to the right resources or making herself available in any way possible.

When Luna's mother was diagnosed with cancer and couldn't work, Maldonado visited their home, bringing food and telling the family they could count on Maldonado and the community if they needed anything else. Luna took it upon herself to make sure Maldonado knew that the community was also there for her. In February, when the Urbana School Board cut $2 million from the annual budget, the administration suggested terminating Maldonado's position.

"[Maldonado's position] was on the administration's list, we had the parent liaison, several, put in front of us to cut," said John Dimit, president of the Urbana School Board. "The community reaction was stronger regarding the minority slot as opposed to the Hispanic one, but for both there was a reaction. The board never seriously entertained eliminating either of the two."

At the March 10 board meeting, one of the last before the final decision on the budget cuts, Luna prepared a speech in Spanish and presented it to the board. With Joseph Wiemelt, director of bilingual and ESL programs in the Urbana district, serving as her translator, Luna explained how much help Maldonado had been to her family and that eliminating her position would leave a hole in the community.

"I didn't give the speech just because I felt like I owed her something," Luna said. "When I was all worried and all stressed about my mom, she was always there. So I said, OK, now that she needs people this is they way I could pay her back."

The board didn't cut Maldonado's job "” she will remain in her position for the foreseeable future. But the threat to her job security has raised awareness about the needs of the growing Latino population in Urbana. Just ask Claudia Quintero, who has a child in the Urbana system.

Cutting Maldonado's position "would affect the Hispanic community tremendously," she said. "The population is growing, huge, students are coming here and it has a huge impact on the community."

A doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois' Institute of Communications Research, Quintero and her family came to the United States seven years ago after she applied to several universities. Her 9-year-old son, Daniel, is a student at Leal Elementary.

"He was 3 when he came [to the United States] and we decided to send him to just English [speaking] schools," Quintero said. "We waived the bilingual program at the beginning."

But after a series of moves across Champaign, it became apparent that fluency in his native tongue was something Quintero wanted for her son.

"We enrolled him at Dr. Howard which has no bilingual program, so at home we would read and speak Spanish," she said. "We tried to keep conversations in Spanish. Then we moved to Southwood, so he was at Robeson, which also has no bilingual program."

Finally, the family moved to Urbana and enrolled Daniel at Leal. "We didn't want him to lose Spanish," she said. "And we're satisfied with the outcome."

Quintero said the Urbana program is good but could be improved. Daniel has one class in Spanish each day that focuses on reading and writing skills; he also meets a few times a week with a teacher to practice reading in Spanish. While she would like to see the equal time in both languages, on the whole, Quintero can see her son improving.

"We visit Mexico once in a while and he enjoys it," Quintero said. "He's proud of his heritage, he's proud of being a native Spanish speaker."

Yet with shrinking school budgets and an upcoming reorganization of the program in Champaign, some parents and staff feel that the programs serving the districts' English Language Learners are suffering. Araceli Salinas is one of these parents.

Salinas and her three children followed her brother to the United States from Mexico 12 years ago. Originally from Puebla, Salinas still has family in Mexico. All three of her children "” a 10-year-old in fourth grade, an 8-year-old in second grade, and a 6-year-old in first grade "” are students in the bilingual program at Booker T. Washington Elementary School in Champaign.

"The bilingual program has taught them how to speak the language, and they speak it well," she said in Spanish.

Washington is the only school in Champaign School District that has bilingual classrooms for all of its grades, kindergarten through fifth. It also serves 100 of the school district's 500 English Language Learners.

"For the same education in Mexico, we'd have to pay a lot of money," Salinas said. "There are more opportunities here for a better price."

The school could be more supportive of reading habits, motivation, and do more than just teach but help them find the motivation to pursue their dreams, she said. As students progress from one grade level to the next, the staff support is lessened, Heckelman said. Which forces students to adapt to their new culture and language rapidly.

Of the 15 schools in Unit 4, three of the elementary schools serve the district's bilingual and English as a Second Language students. "I think [bilingual students] need more support in middle school," said Lauren Heckelman, second grade bilingual teacher at Washington Elementary.Unit 4 "doesn't really have a program in middle school, they don't really have it where students have their important content in [students'] native language."

Students at Washington will face an additional challenge when they will be relocated to a new wing at Garden Hills Elementary "“now scheduled for 2011 when construction is complete. Both Washington and Garden Hills Elementary are set to become magnet schools.

Washington will focus on sciences and math while Garden Hills will focus on fine arts and language, with students' language curriculum being Mandarin Chinese.

The relocation to Garden Hills has some parents like Salinas worried that their children will become segregated from their peers. Parents Ana Huerta, who has one child enrolled in Washington's bilingual program, and Salinas are concerned that the move will hinder their children's education.

Both said they fear that their children will receive a basic education in science and math but nothing more and not receive the after-school programs they do now. They also worry about Garden Hill's location "” they are under the impression it's a bad neighborhood.

"We weren't given a chance to speak up and when we did, it was too late," Salinas said in Spanish.

Maria Alanis, director of Unit 4's Bilingual and English as a Second Language program, said meetings were held throughout the year to clear up concerns and misconceptions about the impending move. 

"As far as communicating, we've been doing that consistently and have really made ourselves available," she said.

Others, however, see the transfer of the program as a good thing for the students. Heckelman believes her students' English skills will improve at Garden Hills because they will have better language models.

"I see the move to Garden Hills as a positive," Heckelman said.

She believes the move will provide her students with more interaction with native speakers in an environment that is already welcoming of English Language Learners.

Still, some staff are apprehensive about the move. Lena Sacco, third-grade bilingual teacher at Washington, said she wasn't even sure if the teaching support staff "” literacy specialists and special education aides "” would move with the program to Garden Hills, or if she, the staff, and students would be welcome in their new building.

"I am very concerned about moving to Garden Hills," Sacco wrote in an e-mail. "My main concern is moving to a school where the principal has "˜hinted' that she does not want the bilingual program."

But Cheryl O'Leary, principal of Garden Hills Elementary, said she thinks the addition of the bilingual students to the current population will be positive because it will introduce general curriculum learners to another aspect of global thinking.

"If you had started [school with a global mindset] and had an acceptance of "wow, you know, Cinco de Mayo is their Christmas," a realization of the other cultures and the needs they have is gonna be important, too."

(Cinco de Mayo celebrates the Battle of Puebla in 1862 when the Mexican army successfully defeated the French and most Latinos are Christian of some derivation.)

"My concern is, is this the best decision for our students? Because it feels like we are just being shunted into a corner to be dealt with later. . ." Sacco said. "But then still held to the same standards as other students/programs."

Despite the challenges of Champaign and Urbana's bilingual programs, parents and teachers alike share the same goal for their students "“ college.

"In an ideal world, I would like them all to go on to college," Sacco said. But "more realistically, by the time they go to middle school I would like them to be self-sufficient. I also hope that they continue learning Spanish, I know once they get into middle school they have the option to take Spanish and I hope that they do, I'm hopeful they do because eventually they're going to start to lose it. I hope that they understand the importance of being bilingual and not see it as a bad thing, seeing it as a good thing, as a strength that they have."
 

By A.M. Cole/ For CU-Citizen Access

¨ Copyright 2011 CU-CitizenAccess.