By Rachel Buller/For CU-CitizenAccess – When Lily Jimenez arrives at her classroom each morning, she begins the day by switching over her calendar to the correct day of the week – in Spanish. At 9 a.m. on the dot, a dozen or so students trickle into the room, most toting backpacks bigger than they are.
“Lunes, martes, miercoles, jueves,” the students start to sing in unison. Switching effortlessly between Spanish and English, Jimenez leads them in the song’s English counterpart. “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday…”
The youngsters, like their native English-speaking friends down the hall, are part of a system that, according to many, is seriously flawed. It’s no secret that education in Illinois, and across the country, is at a crossroads – and in need of reform.
However, the No Child Left Behind era has created a greater emphasis upon English proficiency than second language education. Anyone who has ever tried to learn another language knows the process is anything but easy.
Preschool, in particular, has been called the new front door to the school system. In August, Illinois became the first state to mandate that public schools with preschool programs offer a bilingual education for 3- and 4-year-olds who do not speak English. While the new requirement will give English language learners a head start, it leaves their teachers in a bind.
The new laws require Illinois teachers to obtain certification in bilingual instruction or English as a second language in addition to early childhood education by 2014.
Jimenez, a Spanish bilingual teacher at Washington Early Childhood in Urbana, has been teaching for 13 years. Though she is already qualified (and certified) for her position, many of her colleagues are not.
In fact, the supply of educators holding both certifications doesn’t meet the current demand of students. If there are not enough teachers, though, the same instructor will have to serve more children. It is also unclear whether bilingual programs could be a step toward that goal.
Under the new regulations, school officials must determine whether students speak another language at home and evaluate how well they speak and comprehend English. The number of students who need various linguistic resources has slowly been on the rise. Officials say the initiative may fill the achievement gap, particularly among students from low socio-economic households.
But the new law doesn’t come without some form of resistance. At first, the proposal was so controversial that officials pulled it from the agenda at the last minute. Yet experts say the mandate, which stems from a 2009 state law that extended bilingual services to preschool, will narrow an ever-increasing educational divide. Chicago schools, for example, previously decided on an individual basis whether to offer a bilingual program.
In 2008, nearly 14,000 children enrolled in bilingual programs that received state funds, according to a recent report by the Illinois School Board of Education.
Jimenez had both of her teaching sessions fill up by the second week of August for this year. She still has a waiting list.
Between 2006 and 2009, Champaign and Urbana schools had a 16 percent total increase in the number of non-native English speaking bilingual students, according to data from district offices. Furthermore, state records show that eight percent of the state’s 2.1 million public school children speak limited English, which equals about 168,000 students.
Under current Illinois law, schools must offer a bilingual classroom when 20 or more students share a native language other than English. When there are fewer students, ESL instruction is available. Some logistics are yet to be determined.
“Are they going to say that one ESL teacher provides pull-out services once a week that can serve 30 to 40 kids, or are they going to say all kids have to be in one classroom?” Jimenez says. “What if the limit is 15 and there are 45 kids?”
When a school reaches that magic number of children speaking a particular language, it must look for another teacher with those specific qualifications. Though teachers can finance certification through tuition waivers, school districts only have a certain number available – and that number is dwindling.
Certification courses are typically offered during the day as part of a university’s education curriculum, which doesn’t leave full-time working teachers with much choice but to take classes online or at night, Jimenez says. Sometimes, only one tuition waiver is available per semester and cannot be used toward online courses.
The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) requires 18 semester hours for each bilingual and ESL endorsement and 100 clinical hours embedded in the coursework. Teachers earning a bilingual endorsement must pass a language proficiency test in their target language.
Though specific classes vary from university to university, or among educational centers, most curriculums include courses that involve the following: methods and materials, linguistics, cross cultural studies and student assessment.
Tania Madrigal, a bilingual teacher at the Early Childhood Center in Champaign, says that she has been able to get by fairly well – for now.
“All the classes I’ve taken have been through the U of I, three so far,” she says. “The last one I need I am hoping to take there as well. The Illinois Resource Center also offers the classes but people have to pay out of pocket.
“All of the classes I’ve taken have been after work on campus so it has worked out. However, the ones offered through IRC are only in Chicago. It is true that with the courses online, one cannot use a waiver, so that is rather inconvenient for teachers.”
Madrigal says she received tuition waivers from both the Champaign school district and the University of Illinois because she had student teachers.
“One can take up to three classes with that waiver as far as I know,” she says. “I’ve taken two classes at the same time. It was hard but do-able. I guess now it will be more important because of the mandate that I finish if I stay in Illinois and teach bilingual pre-K.”
Amy Hayden, principal at the ECC, says the center is also trying to accommodate the recent changes.
“If more people in the state are looking for those [waivers], they’re certainly going to, there might not be enough supply to meet the demand,” Hayden says. “It’d be helpful to have an incentive for current teachers to get that additional certification.”
While the ECC has offered bilingual and ESL support for several years, the new laws will involve more steps for teachers and schools that are unsupported by additional funding.
“Quite honestly, it is a challenge to, I mean, we’ve had a different ESL teacher for the last four years, someone new each year,” Hayden says. “So it is a challenge to attract, retain teachers with those qualifications. Our ESL teaching position was one of the positions that was riffed at the end of the school year.”
Though the Champaign Unit 4 school district restored the position, only 66 percent of funding promised to the ECC has been received this year.
“Last year, we had a Spanish bilingual classroom but had a morning and an afternoon session. This year, currently, we just have an afternoon session but we’re sort of assessing the need to open a second classroom again,” Hayden says.
In fact, 25 percent of the entire center is comprised of students who are English language learners. Twenty-five percent of students at the ECC also have an individidual education plan, or IEP.
Urbana public schools face a similar situation. The district nearly lost its Latino parent liaison position last year when budget cuts were still being decided.
Joseph Wiemelt, director of bilingual and multicultural programs at Urbana, says he is hopeful despite financial setbacks.
“Statewide budget cuts are difficult and put a lot of pressure on school districts. I strongly believe that we will continue to move forward and do our best to provide the highest quality programs that we can with the limited resources that we have,” he said. “Our number one priority is student learning and well-being.”
Lynn Peisker, community relations coordinator of Champaign Unit 4 Schools, says that while logistics of the programs may change, the integrity of the programs would remain the same.
The ECC also has a transitional language program, where students use their first language to learn English. In pre-K, 90 percent of instruction is in a child’s first language.
“The philosophy behind it is that children know basic concepts in their first language,” Hayden says.
The value of the mandate for students and society at large weighs heavily upon one’s perspective. While the mandate may enable students to gain a tighter grasp on material and integrate better with fellow students, it is too early to tell what the eventual outcome will be for everyone involved.
Lena Sacco, an ESL teacher at Washington Early Childhood, believes the new law is a small step in the right direction.
“I was always under the impression that this was already mandated because here in Champaign we already had the bilingual program and ESL programs for populations under 20,” she says. “Now that it’s official I think this is wonderful. It just makes sense that we start a child’s language support as early as possible.
“I agree with what the experts are saying in that it will help bridge the achievement gap for language learners. Not all learners, but hopefully most.”
Picture by: File photo/A.M.Cole/Brian, a third grader in Lena Sacco's bilingual class, writes down observations he made during their science lesson on May 12, 2010.