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School districts search for bilingual talent

McCarty Elementary School teacher RebeccNickel works with an ESL student Tuesday April 19 2011.  Nickel was diagnosed with degenerative

McCarty Elementary School teacher Rebecca Nickel works with an ESL student Tuesday, April 19, 2011. Nickel was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease and couldn't sit for more than 10 minutes before having a minimally invasive surgery in 2010 that has

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Fox Valley’s most diverse schools

School (District) %Asian %Black %Hispanic %White

West Aurora High (West Aurora) 3 18 40 38

Washington Middle (West Aurora) 1 20 40 36

Georgetown Elem. (Indian Prairie) 6 16 34 34

Freeman Elementary (West Aurora) 0 5 40 46

McCarty Elementary (Indian Prairie) 15 23 15 41

Illinois Math and Science Academy 42 8 5 42

Hall Elementary (West Aurora) 1 22 44 26

Miller Elementary (Plano) 2 6 41 41

Nicholson Elementary (West Aurora) 2 38 24 20

Schneider Elementary (West Aurora) 4 5 37 47

WBEZ Map:Diversity in our schools
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Updated: December 27, 2012 6:01AM

When asked if they liked their dual language program, Alexzandra and Celeste both wave their hands as if to say “mas o menos” — more or less.

“It was really hard, because in kindergarten I was in dual language and it was in all Spanish, and I knew how to spell, but couldn’t speak (in Spanish). And for a while I forgot to write in English,” Alexzandra said, taking a break from a spelling game with her friend Celeste. “Now I know both.”

The two fifth-grade students said that, although it was hard, they’re both proud to be able to speak two languages.

And there’s another upside. For the hundreds of students enrolled in the Oswego School District’s dual language program at Hunt Club Elementary School, Spanish is the new Pig Latin — teach it to your friends and you’ve got a secret language.

“We use it at lunchtime, and people in other classes overhear us but don’t know what we’re saying,” Celeste said. “But I don’t do it a lot because maybe they’ll think we’re talking about them.”

Kindergarten in the dual language program is taught using about 90 percent Spanish throughout the school week. Half the students enrolled in the program are native Spanish speakers. The other half are native English speakers.

By fifth grade, students spend a week learning in English and the next week in Spanish, and most are fluent in both languages.

In every classroom, posters displaying classroom rules, or shapes and colors might be posted in Spanish while grammar and math rules, and the Character Counts pillars could be in English.

“I like speaking in Spanish,” said Celeste, who added that her sisters were not so lucky. “They have to take Spanish classes in ninth grade, and they don’t know Spanish at all.”

With the growth of Latino populations in Fox Valley schools and communities, perhaps the most visible that change educators are implementing is in response to a demand from both Spanish- and English-speaking parents alike — fully bilingual education.

Popularity of learning

“We want them to be proficient in both. It’s not just about speaking; it’s about reading and writing the language,” said Misael Nascimento, director of ELL and Dual Language in the Oswego district. “We don’t want them to just be bicultural but biliterate. We want kids to read and write well in both languages. By making the native language strong, kids can learn a second language faster.”

And by fully immersing English speakers in a Spanish-speaking environment, the classes grow well-rounded, competitive students, Nascimento said.

“The U.S. is such a beautiful country, but we are the only industrialized country in the world that is monolingual, and that needs to change,” he said. “It’s not a luxury; it’s a need if we want to compete globally. There is nothing wrong with learning a second language; it helps shape your brain, and every student should have the right to do so.”

Classrooms in the Dual Language Learners Program are filled half with native Spanish speakers and half with native English speakers.

Students enroll in Oswego’s Dual Language Learners Program in kindergarten, and spend 90 percent of their day speaking Spanish. The amount of Spanish decreases each year until fifth grade, when students spend every other week speaking their native tongue.

“It doesn’t need to be Spanish, it can be whatever — Chinese, Russian, French,” said Nascimento. “It doesn’t matter which. We need to pick something and let them learn it.”

Spanish has a certain cachet in the Oswego district, where hundreds of Spanish-speaking families — not to mention families with French, Russian, Chinese and other language backgrounds — have flocked for the resources the district provides.

Last year, the district had about 430 students in language programs with acronyms too numerous to count, representing the dual language program, but also ESL classes designed for Spanish-speakers concentrating on English fluency, and a program bringing together students from more than a dozen languages into one classroom.

This year, there are 675 students enrolled in Oswego’s language programs, and the number grows, Nascimento said, by around 100 students a year.

“All programs under (English Language Learners), dual language, resource services, everything you can think of, we have,” said Nascimento. “That makes Oswego a very attractive district; that’s why we are growing so fast. Parents are happy to have their kids here with us.”

Deeper roots

Just to the north of Oswego is a different story. The East Aurora School District instructs a higher percentage of students with limited English proficiency than any other district in the Fox Valley — 36.5 percent of East Aurora kids are still developing their English language skills as a second language.

But that figure is starting to wane, even as the number of Latino families in the district grows.

“This year, one thing that has worked out really well was we had a reduction of 10 bilingual teachers and an increase in general education teachers,” said East Aurora School Board President Annette Johnson.

“What is happening is that the kids, as we’re seeing more second- and third- generation kids (living in the district), their English skills getting better. We’re definitely trending downward on the need for bilingual education.”

Johnson said that families are growing roots in the community and becoming more involved in the culture, which is leading to more parents with English skills and, thus, more children coming more prepared for school in English. The rollout of preschool programs across the district has also boosted English skills among young students, ensuring they spend less time in language-sheltered or bilingual programs.

Price of pluralism

That doesn’t mean, however, that the language programs are universally accepted as a community asset.

Running smaller classes and finding qualified bilingual teachers can be a costly undertaking. For years, the district went overseas to recruit Spanish-speaking teachers but has stopped, said Johnson.

At times, trips to Spain, Puerto Rico and, on occasion, Mexico, have caused some controversy in the district because of the cost: in 2011, East Aurora spent about $23,000 on overseas recruiting trips. All but $2,500 was reimbursed with federal Title III dollars.

Recruitment trips are usually funded by consulates from Spanish-speaking countries, but they don’t always cover every expense, said Johnson.

“There were still some out-of-pocket costs,” said Johnson. “Meals, travel, technically they’re paid for with Title III money, but it’s still money. You could always use that for something else.”

But searching for quality bilingual teachers makes for a pretty good investment, said Oswego’s Nascimento.

“The teachers we get from other countries are really top-of-the-line teachers, with doctorate degrees,” he said. “We’re talking really highly qualified personnel. When you can find them, why not hire them? The No. 1 thing when it comes to student achievement is the quality of the teacher. If Spain or Mexico or Puerto Rico is offering that, we should go get them. We learn a lot from them.”

Nascimento travelled to Spain two years ago when the Oswego district needed five new bilingual teachers, but he also works with teachers in the district, encouraging them to get trained for bilingual classrooms, which takes a total of six years of college.

The cost for all bilingual programs — including dual language and federally mandated ESL classes — totaled $2.5 million last year, according to the district’s budget. But that overstates the additional cost of the language programs, maintains Nascimento.

“It would be extra cost if we were offering something extra,” said Nascimento. “In this case, we have 22 kindergartners in dual language class. When you have 22 students you need a teacher. Some people think there is extra cost. But really, there is no extra cost, unless we’re running a program with five students, but we are not. It think it’s more misconception than what is reality.”

Oswego School Board members and a new administration, however, are not quite so convinced.

“I think for the students, definitely it adds to their skill sets for the future. However, we have to balance the resources for that program versus the resources for other programs,” said School Board President Bill Walsh.

Walsh said Oswego is undergoing a district-wide review of all its programs, including dual language, which Walsh said may not be the most cost-effective program because class sizes are capped — dual-language classes were designed to have 10 percent fewer students than other classrooms in the same grade.

“We had to use some of our reserves to get through the year,” said Walsh. “We’re going to have to look at our whole structure and our district’s portfolio of programs and try to provide as much as we can.”

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