“I want to make sure that children who are coming out of Spanish-speaking households have the opportunity to learn and are not falling behind,” Senator Barack Obama declared last month at a Democratic Presidential debate in Austin, Texas. He added, “if bilingual education helps them do that, I want to give them that opportunity.”
But what happens when bilingual education holds children back, and denies them opportunities to learn? The Senator need look no farther than his home state of Illinois for such an example.
Illinois state law requires school districts to offer bilingual education when at least 20 English learners with the same native language are enrolled. The results have left much to be desired, at the expense of the state’s crucial, and growing, population of Spanish-speakers. Less than 10 percent of the state’s English learners acquire sufficient English skills to transition to English Proficient status each year. Statewide, English learners trailed national averages significantly on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the test known as the Nation’s Report Card, and are among the lowest in the country.
Five years ago, educators in one Illinois school district, Diamond Lake District #76, decided to try something different. They implemented their own English-based, or sheltered English, program of instruction. The results have been impressive. In 2007, 78.6 percent of Diamond Lake’s English learners scored above state performance standards in math, and 71.1 percent did so in reading. Both were well above state averages. The district even received a letter of praise from state education officials in response to their improved results.
But now, state officials have changed their reaction. The state has even threatened withholding $175,000 in annual funding, citing concerns that the district is not in compliance with the state law requiring bilingual education. “The key thing is that, especially for those students who have no English proficiency, they need that native language support,” state administrator Robin Lisboa recently told the Chicago Tribune.
The small school district, in a suburb 40 miles outside of Chicago, is more than 50 percent Hispanic, with more than one in five students classified as an English learner. While its percentage of low-income students is higher than the state average, its school attendance rate is better. Last year, the test scores earned by its English learners were 20 percentage points higher than the Chicago Public Schools’ in math, and 10 points higher in reading.
Diamond Lake’s educators and administrators have, needless to say, expressed dismay at the state board’s ruling. But the threat of lost funding has placed their successful program in jeopardy. In response, the school district has submitted a new education plan, which is currently under review with the state board of education.
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