Albany Park Community Center preschool Credit: Photo by Jason%u2008Reblando

In fall 2010, Illinois became the first state in the nation to require bilingual education for English language learners in preschool. Preschools with at least 20 English learners who speak the same language would now have to do the bulk of teaching in those children’s native language.

Since then, preschools have struggled to create native-language programs. 

Now, preschools that receive state funding are bracing for another challenge: new state rules that will require staff who teach English learners to have bilingual certification. The rule doesn’t kick in until next year, in July 2014, but schools and districts are already looking for ways to recruit staff given the perennial shortage of bilingual educators.

The state currently has 1,525 teachers who have both a bilingual or English as a Second Language endorsement as well as a preschool teaching certificate. On paper, that is enough teachers to meet the need, says Illinois State Board of Education spokeswoman Mary Fergus.

But some of these teachers are not in the active teaching force at all, while others may be teaching in the early grades (an early childhood endorsement covers up to 3rd grade). Others are not teaching in areas where they may be most needed.

“The distribution of [English learners] is not always in line with where the teachers are,” Fergus notes.  

A 2012 study by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley’s Institute of Human Development documents the geographic mismatch: In Illinois ZIP codes where at least 20 percent of the population is Latino, the study found just one preschool teacher certified to teach bilingual or ESL classes for every 50 preschool-aged English learners.

Relying on recruiting, creativity

Martin Torres, senior policy analyst at the Latino Policy Forum, points out that some districts are ready to meet the challenge, but others are not. “There is a dearth of those [bilingual] professionals entering the pipeline,” he says.

Torres praised the state’s move to provide scholarships for teachers to earn the needed endorsements with federal Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge funds, as well as a CPS program to provide training for a cohort of 100 teachers. Plus, some districts are using state bilingual education money for teacher scholarships, Torres adds.

Chicago Public Schools says it won’t know how many teachers might be needed until the fall. A spokeswoman says the district “aggressively campaigned” last fall to get more teachers to start certification programs and over 100 teachers enrolled at City Colleges, National-Louis University and the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“Based on the trend of schools in need, we feel the cohort program will meet the required needs,” according to the spokeswoman.  Teachers who finish the coursework should be certified by spring 2014, just before the deadline.

CPS says it will also begin training principals in July on the bilingual pre-K requirements and monitor school to ensure compliance.

At Bateman Elementary, Principal Pat Baccellieri is searching for teachers and hopes to recruit future hires from Loyola University, which will soon require all of its graduates to be endorsed in bilingual or English as a Second Language education. In the coming year, Bateman will have Loyola student teachers “working side by side” with Bateman teachers, Baccellieri says.

In the meantime, the school relies on creativity to ensure students get native-language instruction.

Classes include a mix of English-speakers and Spanish-speakers, but students change classes for part of the day so that Spanish-speakers can get bilingual instruction even if their teacher doesn’t speak Spanish.

For the future, the school is considering a dual-language model in which all students would learn in both Spanish and English.

“I just think it’s a better way to go,” Baccellieri says. “It’s actually supporting the development of both languages.”  Typical bilingual programs aim to boost content knowledge in a student’s home language but ultimately transition them to learning solely in English.

But Baccellieri notes challenges that loom down the line, given cuts in state aid.

“With increasing need, increasing demand and increasing policies, support is reduced, and it doesn’t make sense,” he says.

At Casa Central, Deputy Director of Children and Youth Services Amanda McMillen says the school works hard at “making sure we have Spanish-speaking staff within the classroom.”

Books, too, are in both English and Spanish. But much of the instruction is still in English, with support to Spanish-speaking students as needed.

McMillen says one new staff member has the required certification and two more are working toward it. She hopes that all four of Casa Central’s preschool classes will eventually have certified staff. She’s also interested in a dual language program but notes that “there hasn’t been too much direct guidance [from CPS] at this point.”

Creating a pipeline

One goal of bilingual education in the early grades is to make sure young children are exposed to rich, high-level language so they become literate in their native language.

The state requires bilingual teachers to pass a test on the foreign language they will be teaching in. But some observers worry that the standard isn’t high enough and that newly certified preschool teachers – many of whom aren’t native Spanish-speakers – won’t be able to teach children with enough fluency and high-level vocabulary to promote children’s growing literacy.

Sandra Warner, principal of the Early Learning Center in West Chicago District 33, explains the dilemma. “We’ve either found native speakers who don’t have the early childhood certification, or we’ve found teachers who have a Type 04 [early childhood certificate] who speak some Spanish but aren’t native speakers,” Warner says.

To work around this problem, the district has created its own pipeline of former teacher assistants–native Spanish-speakers who have earned their early childhood certificate. “We set up a road map for them,” Warner says.

Elgin District U-46, which runs a dual-language program that is 80 percent Spanish in preschool and kindergarten, has found bilingual teachers partly by recruiting them from Spain. But that’s a short-term solution, since the teachers’ visas are temporary. Three teachers will leave at the end of the current school year.

In the long run, Elgin U-46 is working with area universities – top staff members have quarterly meetings with representatives from Northern Illinois University, Eastern Illinois University, Illinois State University and Judson University – to drive home its needs.

“The biggest key has been for us to communicate with our university partners that we need bilingual preschool teachers that have their ELL [endorsement],” says Julie Kallenbach, Director of Early Learner Initiatives for the district.

Sharon Giless, director of English Language Learners at Waukegan Public School District 60, says her district has provided tutoring to help several existing teachers pass the state Spanish skills test. Once they pass the test, they can teach bilingual classes temporarily while they take courses for an endorsement.

Before the district began bilingual preschool classes, Giless notes, students learned a little English but received much of their instruction from Spanish-speaking aides. But even with bilingual classes and more English instruction, children’s language test scores at the end of preschool showed that they needed a kindergarten class almost entirely in Spanish. 

“The idea of bilingual support from the teacher assistant is good, but the delivery of instruction really comes from the teachers,” Giless says. “There is something lost in translation. Having preschool in English  doesn’t make them English speakers.”

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