A driving force behind the creation of the new Commission on Bilingual Education and World Language is the concern that Chicago is not doing a good enough job educating its non-English-speaking students.

That concern is well-founded, since English-language learners comprise 14 percent of the district’s enrollment, or nearly 58,000 students (85 percent are Spanish speakers). And these figures only include students who are currently in bilingual programs, not the thousands that have transitioned into English-only classes.

Given the large numbers of English-language learners in the district, the quality of bilingual education affects the overall performance of the district, says Diane Zendejas, the new director of the Office of Language and Cultural Education.

Under the current guidelines, students should, in a best-case scenario, pass a language proficiency test within three years of entering bilingual education, then transition out to English-only classes and perform well enough to meet state standards.

CPS officials note that in 2007, transition rates and achievement showed some improvement. And for the first time, the district met the performance standard set out in the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Still, data from the Illinois State Board of Education show that the best-case scenario happens too infrequently:

* In 2007, about 45 percent of the 4,500 students who transitioned out of bilingual education in CPS met the three-year benchmark, compared to 70 percent in the rest of the state.

* More than 16 percent of students have been in bilingual education for five years or more, a small percentage for as many as seven years.

* In 2006, 71 percent of students who had transitioned out of bilingual programs two years prior still failed to meet reading standards, and 60 percent failed to meet math standards. That compares to 53 percent in reading and 35 percent in math for transitioned students elsewhere in the state. (State law requires that districts monitor transitioned students for two years. 2007 data are not yet available.)

* Of the 255 schools subject to NCLB performance standards for English-language learners, 55 did not make adequate yearly progress.

Clare Muñana, chair of the bilingual commission, says she’s especially disturbed by the numbers of students who linger in bilingual education.

“After four or five years in the [bilingual] program, they have lost ground in other subjects and they can’t catch up,” Muñana says. “I do not want these children being held prisoner to this program.”

Commission members, many of whom are principals and teachers, have talked about children coming into 4th and 5th grade speaking “Spanglish” and unable to write well in either Spanish or English, says Beatriz Ponce de León, the commission’s project manager.

“They don’t seem to be grounded,” Ponce de León says.

CPS researchers are currently trying to figure out how former ELL students fare long-term on measures such as the ISAT, dropout rates and college performance.

A related issue is teaching quality, and some principals and administrators note that it is extremely difficult to find good bilingual teachers.

Zendejas plans to work with area colleges of education to find new teachers. She also wants to provide more professional development.

“This is another area where some have been left out through the years,” Zendejas says.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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