Of the 58 suburban school districts visited by state monitors in the past three years, not one district met all of Illinois’ tough education requirements for English-language learners, and nearly 40 percent—22 districts—failed to provide a bilingual program for all the students who qualified for it.

Those are the chief findings of a Catalyst Chicago analysis of ISBE records from fiscal year 2009 to the present. Other compliance problems commonly cited in the records: teachers who lacked required bilingual or content-area endorsements, content teaching that did not meet state standards, and not giving students yearly English skills assessments. 

These dismal results are not new or unusual, says Reyna Hernandez, assistant superintendent of the Center for Language and Early Childhood Development at the Illinois State Board of Education. Hernandez noted that, over at least the past decade, it has been relatively routine for most districts to be found out of compliance in at least one area.

Non-compliance could result in school districts being stripped of state money for state bilingual education, but districts are given multiple chances to correct problems, and that has not happened in recent memory.
Illinois has one of the strongest bilingual education laws in the country and is one of only a few states that require native-language instruction taught by certified bilingual teachers. However, these rules may soon get less stringent. A state-appointed task force has recommended changes that are likely to be controversial and would reduce the number of schools required to have certified bilingual teachers and allow some to provide far less native-language instruction.

State officials recognize that some school districts are in a bind, with rapidly growing enrollment of English-language learners and fewer state dollars to pay for bilingual programs. The number of ELL students in Illinois increased 10 percent from 2009 to 2011, state data show, while state money for bilingual education fell by 16 percent.

“There is a lot of hardship to comply,” Hernandez says.
The state’s money is only meant to be supplemental and districts should use their general funding to address the education of ELLs, she adds.

Last year, the Illinois General Assembly appointed a task force to look into whether the rules on native-language teaching should be relaxed.

In its December 2011 report, the group—comprised mostly of administrators, bilingual program directors and district superintendents—recommended changing the trigger for requiring students be taught by a certified bilingual teacher.

Currently, schools with 20 or more students who speak the same native language must offer anyone who is just starting to learn English—even if it’s only one student—a “full-time” bilingual program, with all academic subjects taught in the student’s native language by a certified bilingual teacher. More advanced students can be placed into a “part-time” program, which may be mostly in English.

Under the report’s recommendations, districts would find it easier to comply with the mandate. Schools would not have to provide a full-time program until they had 20 new English learners in the same or consecutive primary grades, 60 students in middle grades  and 75 in high school.

Adequate native-language instruction is critical to developing grade-level literacy skills in a students’ native language, says Judy Yturriago, a Northeastern Illinois University professor and president of the Illinois Association for Multilingual Multicultural Education. 

“Most principals and policy makers do not understand first- and second-language acquisition,” Yturriago says. “They don’t understand the role of primary language. They don’t understand that children who are proficient in the primary language will do better later on.”

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