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Four years ago, Chicago Public Schools cracked down on bilingual education, making rapid transition to all-English classes a priority. Now, the goal is to get students through bilingual education in three years.

The new policy, intended to ensure students would no longer languish in the program, has since produced results. More students are exiting the program after three or four years, and fewer are enrolled in the program overall.

School officials say these students are doing well in their all-English classes. The board tracked some 3,524 3rd -through 8th-graders who exited the bilingual program between 1998 and 2000, and found that at every grade they scored above the CPS median on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS).

But some parents and educators object to the policy’s transition deadlines. Noting research that says students need five years to learn a second language well enough to perform at academic levels, they say the policy may produce more dropouts. They also say the three-year limit is particularly harsh on high school-aged new arrivals who must balance learning English with earning credits to graduate.

“[The board has] got to remove that cookie-cutter mentality,” says Carlos Malave, a parent and LSC member at Kilmer Elementary. Other parents say they were left out and had no input in crafting the new guidelines.

Despite a series of contentious public meetings, the board approved the policy in February 1998.

Chicago’s policy change came at a time when bilingual education was under attack nationwide.

In 1998, an emotionally charged debate led California voters—many of them immigrants dissatisfied with how their children were being taught in public schools—to approve a referendum to dismantle bilingual education for 1.4 million students. Since then, voters in Arizona have followed suit, and anti-bilingual education organizers are targeting Colorado, Massachusetts and New York City for similar measures.

Armando Almendarez, who as chief of language and cultural education led the CPS effort to change the policy, says the board believes in bilingual education but wants to make sure students learn English as quickly as possible.

At first, the new policy called for a three-year limit for students enrolled in bilingual classes, but to appease critics, the board agreed to allow students an additional year if necessary.

Within a year of the policy taking effect in September 1998, program participation dropped by 9,500 students. From 1997 to the present, the total enrollment dropped from 71,000 to 57,000.

Bilingual classes are offered in 20 languages at 270 schools. This year, the number of bilingual education teaching slots is 1,523 and the total program cost is $35.3 million.

The new policy established the following:

A three- or four-year timetable, starting in 1st-grade, for students to transition from bilingual to all-English classes. Program exit criteria based on ITBS reading scores. Students exit if they score at or above designated levels, or are close and receive teacher approval. Students who score poorly are kept for another year and reevaluated. Three hours per week of tutoring during the first year that students take all-English classes. Mandatory classes in English as a second language (ESL)—a course of study that teaches English to non-English speakers—for all bilingual students, including preschool.

Under the new policy, the first step toward exiting the program is the ITBS, which bilingual students can take for the first time in 3rd grade. Scores are recorded but do not count against a student’s promotion to the next grade, or a school’s accountability record. Instead, the results are used to determine whether the student is ready for all-English classes and serve as a baseline to track future progress.

Under the previous policy, an English proficiency test was used to rate whether students were ready to exit bilingual classes. Students were rated on a three-part scale: A for little or no English, B for moderate English and C for English skills strong enough to move into mainstream classes. Teachers also had wide discretion to decide where a student should be placed.

Under that system, a student could remain in B level for years without being assessed and moved on, recalls Almendarez, who was recently promoted to deputy chief education officer. “We had principals say they have kids coming into 9th-grade with no ITBS scores,” he says.

A 1996 Chicago Sun-Times analysis found 121 students in their 12th year of bilingual education.

‘3 years not enough’

While the board painted the old bilingual program as negligent and unaccountable, opponents charged that the new policy has gone too far and will not help students learn English any better.

Parent and community groups, such as the Chicago Multilingual Parents Council (CMPC) the Latino Institute and Centro Sin Fronteras, attacked the proposals during heated public forums that Almendarez recalls as “brutal.”

Maria Vargas, a parent and former Chicago Board of Education member, says the board ignored parent concerns about fast-tracking bilingual students into English-only classes. “That why there’s a lot of [Latino] dropouts,” Vargas says “Three years is not enough.”

Citing well-regarded research, Barbara Radner of DePaul University’s Center for Urban Education, agrees. “It takes five years to move into English fluency,” she says. “You should not lose your [native language] support and be fully immersed in that short period of time.”

Radner adds that the policy’s transition deadlines do not account for student mobility—as high as 40 percent at some schools—which disrupts instruction.

Alice Perez-Peters, Almendarez’s predecessor as bilingual chief, concedes that under her watch, some schools abused the program and kept students in bilingual education too long. But the new policy goes to the other extreme, she says. Some students need more than three years to learn the “academic” English necessary for success in high school, she explains.

DePaul University education professor Angela Perez Miller, a former CPS bilingual teacher and administrator, says researchers who have tried to study bilingual education in CPS have been frustrated by a lack of data and uncooperative school officials.

“Do we really want to know how bilingual education is doing?” she asks.

Today, success in bilingual education means transitioning out of the program. “I’m looking for an improvement in the transition rate,” Almendarez says. “If not, what’s the problem here?”

CPS officials say that in 1997, 5 percent of students exited after three years. However a Sun-Times analysis published at the time cited a 23 percent rate. Last year, CPS officials say, 44 percent exited after three years.

Last year, transition rates fell for the first time since the new policy took effect. The percentage of bilingual students who exited within three years dropped five points this spring from 49 percent in 1999-2000. Four-year transition rates fell more sharply from 46 percent in 1999-2000 to 27 percent last spring.

School officials speculate that transition rates fell because fewer students attended after-school and Saturday tutoring classes. CPS has hired a retired CPS administrator to work with bilingual lead teachers to get more students to take advantage of the extra help.

The new policy has been a good wake-up call for schools that had never examined bilingual curriculum, says Radner, who works with a number of schools with bilingual programs. In the last three years, bilingual instruction is more rigorous and staff is better trained, she adds.

Some parents agree with the tighter focus on learning English. “To be something in the United States, you have to speak English,” says David Freites, father of five CPS students. But he also fears that his children will lose their native language, Spanish.

Nationally, more bilingual education programs are adopting transition timetables or English immersion, says Josie Tinajero of the University of Texas at El Paso, who is also on the board of the National Association of Bilingual Education (NABE).

Tinajero says bilingual students do better when instruction is conducted in both English and their native language for an extended period of time. In fact research has found such programs, called dual language, have been successful by grouping English-learners and English-speakers together and using students’ native language skills to teach each other. (See story.)

“The sooner students are removed from an environment in which they are able to use their native language, the worse off they’re going to be long-term,” Tinajero says.

Bilingual programs in school districts around the country share a common problem: poor teacher training and principal leadership. “That’s where we fail miserably,” she says. “The concept is sound. The implementation has a lot to be desired.”

In Chicago, veterans of bilingual education say implementation of the new policy raised awareness of bilingual education issues, which are the same as they’ve always been—better training for teachers and more support for students.

In fact, many teachers interviewed by CATALYST say they do not agree with every aspect of the policy, but they do not strongly oppose it.

Rosaura Soto, a 30-year bilingual teacher, says the policy provided more tools for her to assess students’ English proficiency, but had no effect on fundamentals of teaching and learning.

Teachers at Lozano Elementary School, where Soto coordinates the bilingual program, have some discretion to extend bilingual services to students who need it. But there is no question what really matters, Soto says. “The board likes it clear cut—test scores.”

Bilingual ed potpourri

The many strands of bilingual education meet at Chavez Multicultural Academic Center in Back of the Yards.

Three-quarters of the school’s 930-student enrollment is in bilingual education, some in a dual-language program. The school, named after legendary migrant worker organizer Cesar Chavez, receives about 80 new students from other countries, mostly Mexico, throughout the year. Student mobility is as high as 30 percent in this “gateway” community because many new immigrant families move to other neighborhoods shortly after they arrive.

School is often the only place for children to learn to speak English.

“You can live in this community and never have to learn English to survive,” says Principal Sandy Traback.

Chavez’s bilingual program was revamped in 1996 with a $1.3 million federal grant. The money was used to train teachers in math and reading; buy computers, projectors and books; and partially pay for 17 teachers to finish master’s degrees in bilingual education. The grant also jump-started a dual-language program for kindergarten through 3rd grade. Another grade will be added each year.

Teacher Patricia Brekke says many of her colleagues came to Chavez to help relieve overcrowded conditions and to have the opportunity to teach high-quality bilingual classes.

“We didn’t like the things we saw” at other schools, Brekke says. At one school, for example, Spanish-speaking students were not invited to a puppet show because, as teachers there reasoned, “They wouldn’t understand that anyway,” she recalls.

To Brekke, the new policy added structure that teachers can use to help students with English acquisition. However, she doesn’t judge students solely on how quickly they transition; she also looks for how much they learned and whether they can express that knowledge in either English or Spanish.

“Is the acquisition of English the be all and end all?” she asks, then answers her own question. “No, I don’t think it is.”

DePaul’s Radner helped Chavez redesign its curriculum, which includes language support in English and Spanish for bilingual students transitioning out of the program.

As director of Chavez’s alternative high school, Brekke works with students who languished in bilingual programs under the old policy, then dropped out of school. “A lot kids are products of the old way, where they could have been in the [bilingual] program for eight, nine years and not learned English,” she says.

Now, students are learning English faster, she says. Principal Traback says she relies on teacher reports to assess how students are progressing, but uses ITBS scores to measure proficiency.

At the high school level, the policy transition deadlines place schools and students under additional pressures. At the same time students are learning English in ESL classes, they also must take required classes in science, math and other high-level academic subjects to earn enough credits to graduate. Teachers agree it’s a tough juggling act for many students.

High schools that once had as many as one in three students enrolled in bilingual education, have about half as many today, largely because the policy moves more students out of the program before they leave elementary school. Since 1996, the number of 7th- through 12th-grade bilingual students has dropped from 18,369 in 1996 to 9,101 last year.

Despite a drop in bilingual enrollment, Principal Diana Azcoitia of Kelvyn Park High says she fights every year to keep bilingual teachers on staff to serve as tutors and advisors.

Board funded ESL tutors help exiting bilingual students improve reading skills, but do little to help them understand science ideas or learn new information, she says.

Azcoitia says she finds that many students skip after-school tutoring because the class carries no credit. “It’s just voluntary. No credit. At the high school, it just doesn’t work.”

Senn High School solves that problem by requiring that transitioning bilingual students to take an additional period of reading during the school day, says Principal Judy Hernandez.

Hernandez suggests schools create individualized instruction plans—similar to those required for special education students—for struggling bilingual students. ”You have to individualize instruction because [high schools] are so large,” she says.

Extra support for transitioning bilingual students is important at both the elementary and high school levels, say many bilingual education experts. Critics say that’s where CPS officials need to be vigilant.

Bilingual teachers at Bateman Elementary School complained last year to the board that their principal was not following the bilingual policy, and that students had been transitioned indiscriminately and denied extra help.

Students were being hurt, says bilingual teacher Sonia Machado. “The ones that have help at home … they do well. But a lot of children without any help at all … are a failure.”

Angela Beneyto-Badillo, who manages compliance for bilingual programs, says her staff visited Bateman several times and found some irregularities.

Corrections were made, Machado says, and the program has improved some.

Every year, CPS audits bilingual programs to detect irregularities in bilingual fund spending or policy implementation. Last year, the bilingual facilitators, one in each of the board’s six regions, made some 600 visits to bilingual programs. But board officials do not keep a summary of the audits, Beneyto-Badillo says.

At one time, the state Board of Education audited CPS bilingual programs, but no longer does because of funding cuts. State officials say they do not see CPS audits.

Almendarez says CPS can only do so much to make sure schools are providing proper services. Measures are in place to hold principals accountable for improving test scores, and principals know transitioned bilingual students should perform well on those tests, he explains.

“It behooves [principals] to be looking at this very carefully and to make sure that support services are provided,” he says.

Still, he admits there’s “always room for improvement.”

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