September/October 2015

Kristina Davis is the assistant superintendent for teaching and learning at West Chicago Elementary District 33.

On a rainy evening in May 2014, the boardroom at West Chicago Elementary School District 33 was full of anxious Spanish-speaking parents. Nervously, they found seats and quietly chatted with each other while waiting for their turn on the agenda. They arrived with a carefully crafted statement requesting expansion of the dual language program. The statement accompanied a petition signed by over 150 parents. Yadira Cholula, a parent of a dual language kindergartener, addressed the board in Spanish:

“ Nuestra meta de venir a esta junta es formalmente pedir una educación academica que logra bilingüismo, biculturalismo and bi- alfabetismo para todos nuestros hijos del distrito 33. Hemos visto que los niños que tenían la ventaja del programa dual avanzan y llegan a los estándares mas altos de los niños que tienen nada mas el programa bilingüe. Los niños del programa dual van a tener mejor oportunidades en el futuro y queremos lo mejor para nuestros hijos. Tambien queremos que nuestros hijos dominen los dos idiomas y conserven su cultura.”

“Our goal in coming to this meeting is to formally ask the board of education to expand the dual language program so that all students have the option to become bilingual, biliterate and bicultural. We (parents) know that students in the dual program will have better opportunities in the future and we want the best for our children. We want our children to not only maintain their language but also their culture.”

District 33 is a suburban school district situated 30 miles west of Chicago in DuPage County. It serves 5,000 students in grades PreK-8. Although West Chicago D33 is located in the third most affluent county in Illinois, it is 61 percent low income. Since 2002, there has been a 17 percent increase in its Hispanic student population. As of 2015, 75 percent of the district’s population is Hispanic, with over 50 percent of the students designated as English Language Learners.  

The petition to the school board read:

“Since its inception in 2001, interest in West Chicago District 33’s dual language program has grown tremendously resulting in many Spanish-speaking students being denied acceptance into the program. The district has six K-5 elementary schools but only one of those schools offers dual language programming. The dual language program provides instruction in both English and Spanish to both English and Spanish speaking students starting in kindergarten, thus supporting the use of both languages. The goal of the program is bilingualism and biliteracy as well as high academic achievement. For at least the past five years, all English-speaking students have gained admittance through the lottery into the district’s Two-Way Dual Language program offerings, but Spanish speakers have been turned away. In 2013, District 33 saw a 50 percent increase in Spanish-speaking student applications that were rejected due to space. By August of 2013, 150 Spanish-speaking parents were on waiting lists for the program. District 33’s Hispanic population has grown from 58 percent in 2002 to 75 percent in 2014.”

The board responds

In consideration of the parents’ concerns, the District 33 board responded.

“We have seen a higher demand for dual language instruction from our Spanish speaking parents than English speaking parents and therefore we have been unable to accommodate all interested Spanish speaking students. Some of this demand comes from the sheer fact that we have a very large Spanish speaking population,” said Brenda Vishanoff, president of the board of education.

“We see this petition as a positive sign that our Spanish speaking parents are aware, involved, and expect more for their children. It’s our job to respond to our parents and provide what we know is best for students.”

A year later, the board of education has voted to expand the dual language program to include all students interested in learning in two languages. This fall the program replaces Transitional Bilingual Education (TBE) that promoted English language learning only. For many years, bilingual education classes have been considered remedial and for students who were struggling to learn English. The student’s native language was viewed as an obstacle to learning that must be overcome. With the dual program, their native language is an asset and the goal is to turn out bilingual, biliterate students equipped to compete in a global market.

“In the past, our Spanish-speaking parents were more worried about their children learning English. Now they are saying, ‘I get it, my kid needs both skills if they are going to make it in this world,’” said Charles Johns, superintendent of West Chicago District 33. “Parents are becoming more informed in what the future holds for their kids. Due to rapid changes in technology, this generation will no longer be competing with kids in the U.S. for jobs, but they will be competing with kids from India, China, and Japan. Bilingualism and an appreciation for other cultures is the ticket.”

Moving towards dual language learning

While this year’s expansion is limited to include all Spanish-speaking students in what is called a “One-Way Dual Language” program, plans are being made to recruit more English-speaking students to be able to expand the current two-way program at other buildings.

A “Two-Way Dual Language” classroom includes an equal number of Spanish-speaking and English-speaking students learning in both languages. This program supports “two language” groups of students in becoming bilingual, bicultural, and biliterate. A one-way dual language classroom includes students whose home language is Spanish learning in English and Spanish. This program supports “one language” group of students in becoming bilingual, bicultural, and biliterate.

Dual immersion programs require a long-term commitment from parents. This year, enrollment will take place in the preschool for the one-way program and in kindergarten for the two-way program.

“We make it clear to ‘two-way’ parents that a commitment is expected through fifth grade. Otherwise, students will not reap the benefits,” said Stephanie Drake, principal at Gary Elementary School, a two-way dual language school. The same commitment is being asked of Spanish-speaking parents of students in the one-way program. “For it to work, parents will need to be very involved in their children’s progress at home and school. They need to understand the program and how it works.”

Different models exist for how language is taught in dual language classes. District 33 has made the decision to use an 80/20 model in the program across the district, 80 percent Spanish and 20 percent English starting in kindergarten. The preschool program will use a 90/10 model. The goal is to reach 50/50 use of both languages in third through fifth grades.

This year Drake will be the new principal at Gary. She was that school’s dual language kindergarten teacher prior to her appointment. She saw first-hand how students, from both languages, progressed in their language skills throughout the year.

“The first day, there are some tears. Especially when the lesson moves to the second language,” said Drake. “As a teacher, you need to be careful not to revert back to their native language because once you do that, they start to ignore the second language and wait for you to teach in their first language. Learning is lost.”

Dual language teachers receive training in strategies for teaching in two languages. This year, with the expansion happening district-wide, all Pre-K through second-grade teachers will be trained by Karen Beeman, a consultant for Teaching for Biliteracy. Her work with teachers will include strategies to help students learn and bridge concepts from one language to the other.

“Our teachers will need support and ongoing professional development. Along with training, we will be providing classroom coaching,” said Christine Wells, the district’s director for teaching and learning. “This is new for our teachers who taught in our transitional bilingual education program, especially since the goals of that program were to teach students English as quickly as possible.”

In a time of immense change in education, this change is welcome to many teachers in District 33. Laura Mendoza, a bilingual teacher at Wegner Elementary School said, “I have waited a long time for this day to come. For us to finally realize that we are missing out on a great opportunity. These kids deserve every advantage we can give them. What can be more advantageous that being bilingual?”

In May 2015, letters went home to the district’s Spanish-speaking parents, including those who petitioned the board last year, inviting them to a meeting to share the good news and answer questions about the expanded dual language program. Once again, the board room was full of nervous parents, but this time with excitement. As district administrators explained the plan and responded to questions, a sense of anticipation built around the room. Parents not only had questions, but also suggestions for ways they could volunteer their time to support the program.

One parent commented, “My oldest child doesn’t speak Spanish anymore, so we can’t understand each other. I am very happy that my youngest child will have this opportunity. This tells me that the district not only wants our children to have better opportunities but cares about families.”

The meeting concluded with heartfelt applause.