(One of two Catalyst stories on efforts by CPS charter schools to meet a new state law on bilingual education. See also: UNO charter network slow to remedy bilingual shortcomings.)

At Erie Elementary Charter School in West Town, where one in three students is working to learn English, principal Velia Soto says she’s doing her best to make sure she’s following a new state law that governs how English-learners should be taught and what credentials teachers need.

The West Town school’s program model wasn’t an issue — Erie already offered native language support through a Spanish-English dual language program — but of the 18 teachers who led classrooms this past year, fewer than half held some kind of state-approved credential to serve English-learners, which requires certain coursework.

Since the law passed last summer, Soto has met with representatives from the Illinois State Board of Education and CPS, and submitted plans to show her school is making efforts to come into compliance.

“They said they knew it would be a work in progress,” Soto says. “They were not expecting everyone to be 100 percent in compliance [right away].”

In addition to hiring new teachers who hold one of the necessary credentials, Soto is encouraging teachers who speak Spanish to seek a provisional five-year license that requires them to show they are proficient in the language — buying them time to complete additional coursework.

She thinks it will take at least three years to fully comply with the law. It likely would happen more quickly if Soto could afford to cover the cost of coursework for her staff, she says. But in the current budget climate, she’ll be able at most to cover the cost of taking an exam or filing paperwork.

Last fall, CPS told charter schools they had until the 2016-17 school year to employ enough credentialed staff to work with English-learners and to upgrade instruction models.

But interviews Catalyst conducted with principals and teachers show that charter schools are moving at varying paces to come into compliance — from spending nearly a year planning to quickly offering to pay teachers to obtain necessary credentials.

Charter principals say CPS is checking to make sure teachers hold the right credentials or are in the process of seeking them before doling out state and federal funding set aside for English-learners. And the office that oversees English-language learners has begun to pay more attention to charter schools, principals say, including inviting their teachers to attend professional development sessions.

But part of the problem is that charter schools are competing for credentialed staff at a time when bilingual educators are in short supply across Illinois.

Bilingual education teacher positions were among the most likely to go unfilled in the state last year, according to a recent report on educator demand. And bilingual educators are believed to be among the most under-produced educators in teacher prep programs. The severity of the state’s shortage of bilingual teachers was ranked second among all types of educator jobs, just below school nurses.

About 4,800 teachers who work in CPS held a bilingual or English as a Second Language (ESL) endorsement in the 2013-14 school year, according to the latest data available from the state — or about one in five teachers. (The more-difficult-to-obtain bilingual endorsement requires knowledge of a second language, while an ESL endorsement does not.)

Of those with credentials, just 2 percent — fewer than 100 teachers — worked in charter schools. By comparison, about 7 percent of all students learning English in CPS were at charter schools.

Sonia Soltero, who teaches students seeking these credentials at DePaul University’s College of Education, says it’s becoming increasingly common for Chicago-area schools to hire with a preference for teachers who’ve been trained to help English-learners. (And indeed, some CPS teachers in district-run schools say they feel pressure to go back to school to get a credential to keep their jobs.)

“There are a couple districts where they’ve decided any new teacher hired would need an ESL endorsement,” Soltero says. “If there are two candidates for a teaching job and one has an ESL endorsement and another doesn’t, and they are equally prepared — you go for the ESL-endorsed teacher.”

Work at CICS schools

Though Chicago International Charter Schools (CICS) — as well as the United Neighborhood Organization — lobbied against the new state law before it passed, CICS teachers and administrators say their schools have taken steps to comply over the last year.

Stacy Beardsley, the CEO of Civitas Schools, which manages three CICS campuses, says her group and the schools’ teachers union are discussing a proposal to partially reimburse tuition for staff who want to earn an ESL or bilingual endorsement.

“Our feeling was that the market was so tight,” Beardsley says. “We wanted to create an opportunity for our own people” to earn the credentials.

Beardsley’s schools would need about a dozen endorsed teachers to go a little beyond the state’s bare minimum staffing requirements, she says. At the end of the summer, the schools will have just three teachers with a credential.

But already, teachers say they are seeing improvements at CICS schools for English-learners.

Melissa Arkin, a Spanish teacher at the CICS Northtown campus, says she and two of her ESL-endorsed colleagues met over the summer to map out a new ESL curriculum for classes that will cater to three levels of learners. The study halls she’ll oversee will be smaller and dedicated to English-learners, instead of mixing them in with general education students.

Emily Harris, a Spanish teacher at the same campus, says she and several of her colleagues signed up earlier this year for an online program to get ESL and bilingual endorsements from Dominican University after hearing a presentation at her school.

Last year, Harris says, the school provided detailed training on how to read English-learner test scores and gave tips for targeting specific groups of students. “We’ve had trainings in the past, but never like this,” Harris says.

Cost and convenience matters

Some educators worry that the new law places an extra burden on veteran teachers who do not have the credentials and have to pay to go back to school to earn an endorsement. (Many undergraduate and graduate education programs in the area now offer the endorsements as part of regular coursework.)

To obtain the credential, teachers can take courses on their own or go through a cohort program that’s a collaboration between CPS and Northeastern Illinois University. (Teachers get a tuition discount if they work through the CPS cohort, instead of doing it on their own.)

The Illinois Network of Charter Schools also vetted options and chose the for-profit University of Phoenix’s online program. The advocacy group’s policy manager, Pam Witmer, says they believed it to be both “rigorous” and accommodating of teachers’ schedules. The group began recommending the online program in the spring, and since then some charter schools have begun enrolling their teachers.

But some educators say it’s difficult to take the required courses online — especially those that involve pronunciation and phonetics — and they would have preferred to do the courses in-person. Others say the online courses are convenient and can work depending on a person’s learning style and level of experience.

Rickie Yudin, the principal at Namaste Charter School, where just under one-third of students are English-language learners, says his McKinley Park school didn’t need more endorsed teachers to comply with the law — they also run a dual language program — but he wanted the rest of his staff to seek an ESL credential to raise the level of services offered at his school.

The school spent three or four months looking at ESL endorsement programs and decided to choose the University of Phoenix program after Yudin talked to another principal and was satisfied with its level of rigor, cost and how it could be adapted to suit his school’s unique calendar.

He offered to pay for staff members to take three courses — half of the endorsement for most teachers — which came to $1,800 a person. About 10 staffers signed up, and eight have completed the three courses, Yudin said.

He acknowledged that “it’s a little bit challenging to do online” but because he arranged for a course just for Namaste staff, teachers were able to work together and talk about assignments. Other online programs can include students from around the world.

One charter school employee who tried to earn on an ESL endorsement online said it was hard not being able to hear the lessons. She eventually dropped the course.

“You’re teaching us about differences in sound, and we’re just reading these phonetic words online,” she said. “Until you actually confront a sound, you don’t really know if you’re understanding it correctly.”

The online approach is not unique to charter schools. One North Side teacher at a district-run school says she recently obtained her ESL endorsement online through the American College of Education after her principal offered to cover most of the costs.

“All we did was read articles and respond to them,” she says. “It just wasn’t a tremendous amount of feedback or any genuine back and forth.”

Catalyst reporter Melissa Sanchez contributed reporting.

Flash cards photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Kalyn is a reporter for The Chicago Reporter. Email her at kbelsha@chicagoreporter.com and follow her on Twitter @kalynbelsha.

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