The Illinois State Board of Education was supposed to vote this week on
whether all state-funded preschools run by school districts must
provide official bilingual programs by 2014.

The Illinois State Board of Education was supposed to vote this week on whether all state-funded preschools run by school districts must provide official bilingual programs by 2014.

But the proposal was so controversial that it was pulled off the agenda at the last minute. Supporters hailed it as a needed benefit. Critics said programs would have a hard time finding qualified teachers.

Under the proposed rule, programs with at least 20 students who speak the same non-English language would be required to teach students in their home languages. Those with 19 or fewer students would teach students in English, but with specialized English as a Second Language content.

Currently, Chicago schools decide on an individual basis whether to offer a bilingual program. Typically, those that do not keep an aide or parent volunteer in the classroom who can communicate with children who do not speak English. They also receive assistance from bilingual coaches, who are trained to disseminate ESL teaching methods to staff who aren’t certified in the specialty.

The measure brings state policy in line with a law that took effect in January 2009. The change would not affect state-funded preschool programs in private day care centers and community-based organizations (except for those funded by school districts, a category which includes nearly all community-based Preschool for All sites in the city of Chicago).

Only 1200 teachers across the state have both a bilingual or ESL credential and an early-childhood endorsement, but many of them are teaching in elementary schools. And the pipeline is slow: during the 2008-09 school year, just 33 teachers joined that group.

Barbara Bowman, head of the Chicago Public Schools Office of Early Childhood Education, estimates the district would likely need to hire about 100 new teachers.

Districts can use bilingual money to help teachers get certified, ISBE spokeswoman Mary Fergus says. But including preschoolers in bilingual law doesn’t mean the funds would increase proportionally. The state allocates the funds each year, and in a time of budget cuts, bilingual dollars, too, are likely to take a hit.

Despite these challenges, bilingual education advocates see the proposed change as a positive one. DePaul University education professor Sonia Soltero says some preschoolers in CPS – along with many elsewhere in Illinois  – need more help than they are currently getting.

Putting children in all-English classes without additional help “is not supported by any evidence,” she says, noting that it takes five to seven years for students to learn enough English to succeed in school.

In her keynote address at Oakton Community College’s Infant Toddler Conference on March 6, Soltero painted a sobering picture of the effects of the “sink or swim” all-English preschool classes that are common around the state.

Students may find themselves in an unfamiliar environment, unable to fully understand what is going on, Soltero told the crowd. Without bilingual or ESL classes, students may have a higher risk of school failure down the road, especially if they are also growing up in poverty. In the early elementary years, they may begin to feel ashamed of non-English-speaking parents, and tell them not to visit school.

Her vision: Expanding bilingual programs, including in the upper grades, to produce children who are fluent and literate in both their first language and in English – reaping the job-market advantages.

But it isn’t clear whether bilingual preschool programs would, in practice, be a step toward that goal. The law doesn’t say how to meet the bilingual instruction requirement, Bowman notes, or how much of it must happen in a child’s first language.

“If we don’t have [enough] teachers, they may have to move children [to English] more quickly – so that the same teacher can serve more children,” Bowman says.

Program relevance at issue

Luisiana Melendez, director of the Erikson Institute’s Bilingual/ESL certificate program, says that she doesn’t think there are enough seats in certification programs for all the teachers who would need to go back to school to get the credential.

Most of such teachers likely would end up with endorsements geared toward K-12 classes, Melendez says. Only two institutions in the state – Erikson and DePaul – offer specialized coursework for early-childhood educators; the Illinois Early Learning Council is working to get more universities to address the issue.

Still, Melendez says, the coursework won’t be a waste. “[It] addresses things that are crucial to teachers who are working with dual language learners,” she says.

She says that preschool bilingual education is getting more attention. Head Start has expanded its professional development but has yet to make bilingual education a requirement.

“At the top level of Head Start, this is a hot topic,” Melendez says. “There is momentum.”

Bilingual education has been a national issue since the 1970s. But in the late 1990s and the No Child Left Behind era, a growing emphasis on accountability led to more focus on English proficiency and less on second-language education, she says.

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