Getting young children ready for school by exposing them to language, equipping them with reading readiness skills, and instilling a love of exploration and learning is the key to preparing them for school success.
But that task is more difficult for youngsters whose native language is not English—primarily Spanish-speaking students, who are the vast majority of non-English speakers in Chicago—because of the lack of bilingual preschool teachers. The problem is particularly acute in preschool programs operated by community organizations that partner with Chicago Public Schools.
“We don’t have numbers, but we hear from programs about the difficulties of recruiting certified bilingual and bicultural teachers,” says Maricela Garcia, the executive director of the advocacy group Latinos United.
CPS principals have an easier time attracting those candidates who have the necessary language skills and the certification in early childhood education.
“I was very fortunate. I have enough teachers in my school,” says Jose Barrera, the principal of Columbia Explorers Academy, a well-regarded neighborhood elementary school in Brighton Park. Advertising open positions has paid off, he adds. “I guarantee people will come and work here.”
Ricardo Estrada, the executive director of Erie Neighborhood House, cites three reasons for the shortage in community preschools.
For one, the pool of potential teachers is small because not enough Latino students are attending college, says Estrada. “And the best and brightest are not choosing the [teaching] profession because of the pay.”
Finally, Latino college students who do become teachers typically opt to work for the district for monetary reasons: Salaries for CPS and community preschool programs are comparable, but community preschool staff work longer hours.
In CPS, “they work nine and a half months. We work year-round,” says Estrada.
Recruiting from within
Thus far, Erie House’s solution has been to ‘grow their own’ by encouraging staff to obtain training and a degree in early childhood education.
“We have one bilingual person in every classroom,” Estrada explains. “That doesn’t mean that every lead teacher is bilingual, but somebody—an assistant teacher, an aide—is bilingual. And currently, 80 percent of our staff is working towards some kind of degree.”
Garcia applauds the move. She advocates a model currently being used at El Valor, a nonprofit group in Pilsen. For the last 15 years, El Valor has taken groups of people from the community and helped them obtain their degrees in early childhood education and other areas. Residents can also take classes to help them brush up for the basic skills test, which they must pass to get a teaching degree.
Most of those in the programs are women who have been out of school for years and need to improve their basic skills, Garcia notes.
The partner universities provide instruction at El Valor in the evenings and on Saturdays, and also provide child care.
Vincent Allocco, the executive director of El Valor, says the program started when Northern Illinois University approached the organization about creating an early childhood education program called Touch the Future.
Since then, the organization has partnered with the University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago State University, Daley College, Kendall College, Governors State University, Southern Illinois University, National-Louis University and Olive-Harvey College to provide instruction for a degree in other areas such as business, speech therapy and counseling. Participants receive a reduced tuition rate.
Currently, 17 people are in an early childhood education bachelor’s degree program and 15 are in a program to help them pass the basic skills test to gain admission into an Illinois teacher preparation program.
Allocco says the organization hopes to provide a way for residents to earn a master’s degree in early childhood education soon.