Timber Ridge Middle School students decorate a cookie in the shape of a biological cell for science class. The southwest suburban Plainfield district uses a strategy called sheltered instruction, which combines English with extra help in Spanish, so bilingual students understand the lesson. [Photo by Jason Reblando] Credit: Photo by Jason Reblando

Super Mercado La Pequeña could be smack in the middle of Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood.

Takis, the brand-name of a corn tortilla snack popular in Mexico, are among the items stocked on the shelves. Hand-lettered signs in the large storefront window advertise “Tamales,” “Carnitas” and “Barbacoa” for sale. The freezer section stocks popular Mexican ice cream treats, including paletas, a type of Popsicle. The store’s logo is in red and green, on a white background—the colors of the Mexican flag.

But this market isn’t in Pilsen—it’s in the outer reaches of suburbia in Plainfield. Here, in the aftermath of a devastating 1990 tornado, corn fields gave way to subdivisions where Latinos and other immigrants, as well as African Americans, have moved in record numbers. The subdivisions are surrounded by rock quarries and industrial plants, but it’s easy to see why the area attracted so many newcomers looking to make a fresh start: The homes are affordable, with spacious yards and large ponds nearby that are often filled with geese.

Plainfield’s demographic shift isn’t unusual. Indeed, data from the 2010 U.S. Census show that a majority of the state’s Latinos—52 percent—now live in the Chicago suburbs. Just 38 percent live in the city. In Will County, where Plainfield is located, and in neighboring Kendall County, the percentage of Latino residents has roughly doubled in the last decade.

The shift has brought a sea change—and new challenges—to suburban schools that must educate a growing number of students whose native language is not English. Since 2005, a quarter of suburban school districts have seen their numbers of English-language learners double. In Plainfield School District 202, they have tripled.

Suburban districts are trying out different strategies, with varying degrees of success, to help these students become proficient in English and also teach higher-level academic content. Plainfield School District 202, for example, still hasn’t trained all of its teachers in its middle-grades strategy. And many districts still have difficulty finding certified bilingual teachers, although the long-standing statewide shortage has eased in recent years.

According to the results of the state’s ISAT, English-language learners in many suburban districts are struggling academically. Judy Yturriago, president of the Illinois Association for Multilingual Multicultural Education and former head of the bilingual program in Evanston schools, calls suburban school performance in this area “spotty.” 

In four of the 10 suburban districts with the highest percentages of ELL students, reading scores of 8th-grade Latinos lag far behind scores of white students, with achievement gaps of between 17 and 23 percentage points, according to a Catalyst Chicago analysis of 2011 ISAT scores.

In high school, the gap may well increase as students tackle more complex academic content that requires high levels of English literacy. Aurora East District 131 has a staggering 45-point gap between the percentage of white and Latino students who met state standards on the reading section of the Prairie State exam. (Aurora East District 131 is the only one of the 10 districts that includes high school students.)

But, Yturriago says, there are some bright spots. “Wherever you have dual-language programs, the kids are doing really well,” she notes. Dual language—something of a “gold standard” for teaching language acquisition—aims to build students’ literacy in their native language as well as in English.

Yturriago cites Evanston District 65 (her former district), North Shore District 112 in Highland Park, and School District 54 in Schaumburg as models of how to implement dual-language programs. In all three districts, at least 80 percent of Latino 8th-grade students met state reading standards on the 2011 ISAT reading test.

Money, too, is an ongoing concern. While the enrollment of ELL students in the state is increasing—including the number of students who speak other languages besides Spanish—the pot of state bilingual dollars is shrinking.

Elgin District U-46 and Cicero School District 99 illustrate the challenges. Elgin has experienced a recent uptick in its Latino population, from a third of residents in 2000 to nearly half of the city in 2010. Cicero, in contrast, has long been mostly Latino, but rose from 77 percent in the 2000 Census to nearly 87 percent in 2010. (In both districts, not all Latinos are English-language learners.)

In Elgin, a class action lawsuit has been in the courts for more than six years, alleging that bilingual students were segregated, weren’t given enough support after transitioning out of bilingual programs, and were kept in overcrowded classes. The Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund has lawyers working on the lawsuit, along with other groups.

Alonzo Rivas, regional counsel in the Midwest office of MALDEF, says other lawsuits could be filed against other districts. Rivas says his office is investigating several complaints from suburban bilingual teachers who charge that bilingual classrooms are overcrowded, that administrators tell them not to offer native-language instruction—which is required by law—and that students who need to be in bilingual education are placed in regular classes.

If parents in the districts want to move forward, the lawsuits could be filed, Rivas says. But so far, many are hesitant. “They’re afraid that the district may retaliate against their children,” he says. “Some of them are also afraid because of their immigration status in this country.”

Elgin Superintendent Jose Torres (formerly an area officer in Chicago Public Schools), who was hired since the events at issue in the existing lawsuit, has instituted a dual-language approach for all bilingual kindergarteners and 1st- and 2nd-grade students. As the students get older, the program will add one grade level per year. Some Elgin schools also include English-speaking students to teach them Spanish.

In kindergarten, students get 80 percent of their instruction in Spanish; that percentage declines each year to reach 50 percent in 3rd through 8th grade. Using this approach helps shore up the literacy skills of native Spanish-speaking students and creates a stronger foundation for learning advanced academic content since they are taught basic concepts in their first language.

The strategy is evident in Filiberta Sachanski’s 1st-grade class at Hillcrest Elementary, as students work on math problems. “Llevar las cuentas con la calculadora,” the overhead reads, meaning, “Solve the problems with the calculator.”

Students are using a grid of numbers from 1 to 50—the “calculator”—to learn about subtraction, and they are doing so in an environment rich in academic Spanish vocabulary.

A bulletin board lists some of the transition words that students will need for academic writing in Spanish, such as principio, primero, segundo, luego, en medio, después, por lo tanto, sin embargo—meaning, beginning, first, second, later, in the middle, after, therefore, nevertheless.

Sachanski’s speech is rapid and her enthusiasm is contagious. The children cheer when they count on the number grid and arrive at number 6, which is key to the subtraction problem they are working on.

The district has a “curriculum alignment plan” that maps out how much time is spent on Spanish and English and in which subjects.

“If it’s Spanish time, it’s Spanish time, and all students are speaking Spanish,” says Hillcrest Principal Jennifer Tallitsch.

In Cicero, recent efforts to start a similar program fell short because of poor implementation. District officials failed to fully explain the philosophy behind the program to teachers, or even to many principals, says Michael Dziallo, the district’s assistant superintendent for educational services. The goal was to ensure that students stayed in the program through 8th grade and left fully fluent in English and Spanish, but some staff instead transitioned students swiftly out of bilingual classes.

With inconsistent teaching, students’ skills levels varied widely once they reached junior high. To compensate, the junior high created a dizzying mix of separate bilingual classes for students still at lower levels of English proficiency, a dual-language program and extra help in Spanish for students in English-only classes who needed the added support.

The program also faltered because the district had a hard time finding enough teachers who were sufficiently fluent in Spanish.

“Simply because you passed the [state language proficiency] test does not really mean that you’re truly bilingual,” Dziallo says. “Some teachers are stronger in one language or the other, and they tend to teach in the language that they’re stronger in.”

Cicero must now choose between two approaches. One is to try and reboot the dual-language program, despite the problems, because of the benefit to students in developing fluency and literacy in two languages. The second choice is to transition students out of bilingual classes more quickly and start before-school or after-school programs that allow students to maintain their Spanish.

The ability to speak two languages “should be seen as a plus [with] lots of advantages later in life,” says Ilyse Leland, the district’s director of English-language learner programs. “But on the other hand, our goal as a public school is to teach the children English, not to maintain the native language [though] we are trying to figure out a way that we can.”

Plainfield District 202 is also considering the possibility of starting a dual-language program.

Currently, the district offers a transitional program that aims to move students into English classes, with native language instruction for students in kindergarten through 5th grade and for older students who need the support. When students take content-area classes taught in English, a strategy called sheltered instruction allows them to be integrated into classes with native English speakers.

Parent Carmen Avalos, who moved to Plainfield from Bolingbook five years ago when the family purchased a house, says her 11-year-old son, Jesus, struggled before his school started a bilingual program. But when it began, “his grades went up,” she says through a translator.

“For me, the program is complete because when my daughter goes to the Spanish classroom, she is taught the same [material],” as the English-speaking students, Avalos says.

But she adds that parents also believe a dual-language program—part of a proposed five-year strategic plan that the school board hasn’t voted on yet—would be beneficial.

On a fall day, in a 7th-grade science class at Timber Ridge Middle School in Plainfield, teacher Tina Trabold uses sheltered instruction techniques. Her students read out loud the goals for the class period, which include explaining how and why organisms are classified. Trabold has students read the goals out loud to make sure that her English-language learners understand the lesson.

In Plainfield, sheltered instruction is used in the middle grades and in high school when students know enough English to be in regular classes but need extra support. Many districts have turned to sheltered instruction because the teacher doesn’t have to be bilingual and some research suggests it can improve student learning. But the strategy requires significant planning by teachers, especially as the students get older and the academic content gets increasingly difficult.

In Trabold’s class, students are told to write down how classification could be used to organize a clothes closet. The goal is to connect the lesson to students’ previous experiences “so it’s more meaningful to them,” says Linda Hoste, the district’s director of English-language learner programs.

Next, to provide an opportunity to speak English, the students share their examples with a partner. Trabold then calls on students to share their examples out loud. “By the time of the year, like seasons,” one boy says. “By, like, how long the sleeves are,” says another.

The students read aloud an article about how skunk identification has changed over the years and—to work on writing—answer comprehension questions in journals. Next, they’re talking again—sharing their journal entries with a partner.

The class moves quickly. Trabold leads them in several exercises, such as creating a key for identifying shoes. At each point, the activities provide opportunity for the students to practice using English. During a vocabulary exercise, students are asked to define the words “dichotomous,” “taxonomy,” and “classification” for their partners.
“This is increasing their opportunities to interact,” Hoste says. “For a lot of them, this is their only opportunity to speak English.”

Researcher Diane August, who helps train teachers on the sheltered instruction program used in Plainfield, points out that lesson planning is difficult, particularly in the upper grades because of the more sophisticated academic content. Many teachers need pre-made curricula, she says.

One reason that school districts turn to sheltered instruction is the difficulty in finding certified bilingual teachers.
Roger Prosise, the superintendent of Diamond Lake School District in Mundelein, says that his district struggled with that problem, as the percentage of ELL students tripled over the past decade. At one point, Prosise even sent staff to Spain to recruit teachers.

When that didn’t work, he had teachers switch to a sheltered model, limiting instruction in Spanish unless a student needed it for clarification.

Prosise, though, ran into problems because of the state requirement that students receive instruction in their native language.

Prosise believed he had verbal approval from the Illinois State Board of Education, and points out that the district received special recognition from the state for its test score gains. But when it came time for a spring 2007 compliance review, the state told Prosise that he had to change the program because it did not provide enough native language instruction.

In a worst-case scenario, districts that are not in compliance could lose their state bilingual money. After some back-and-forth, Prosise says, the district’s money and the program remained intact. But now, the district asks parents to sign waivers opting out of bilingual education, although it’s not clear whether such a request is legal.

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