Our Children (The PTA National Magazine)
Many of the most important challenges in American public education can be framed by considering the deeply troubling statistics and trends regarding our high school graduates. For instance, 17 of the 50 largest cities in the United States have high school graduation rates lower than 50 percent, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education. While this situation should be considered both unacceptable and urgent, it is often not treated as such. For English language learners, a large and fast-growing part of our student population, the urgency is even greater.
The best predictor of student success in high school is student success in elementary and middle school. In Illinois’ Diamond Lake School District 76, we have experienced remarkable academic progress with our elementary school English language learners. This success is due to a myriad of factors, including good teachers, more instructional time, curriculum, class size, and a research-based literacy program based on teaching in English with Spanish support. But there is little doubt that an important reason for the district’s success with English learners is related to our success in increasing parent involvement for this crucial population.
District 76 is a small, diverse public suburban elementary school district of 1,300 students from Mundelein, Vernon Hills, and Long Grove, that feeds into two high schools, one of which is among the best high schools in the country. We have a 50 percent Latino and a 40 percent low-income population, and 90 percent of the Latino population is low-income. The families of English language learners (ELLs) in District 76 are primarily low-income. The housing for many of these families consists of small, single family houses, with multiple families living in a single home.
From 1998-2003, bilingual education did not work in District 76, even though there was a genuine and full commitment to it during that time. It did not work for at least three reasons.
• A shortage of good bilingual classroom teachers – documented annually by the Illinois State Board of Education.
• A shortage of good bilingual reading teachers.
• A lack of good bilingual instructional curriculum material.
During 2004-2007, the district’s low-income population increased by 16 percent. During this same time period, Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT) test scores of ELL students improved by more than 100 percent on the reading exam and 60 percent on the math exam. In anonymous surveys conducted in 2006 and 2008, parents gave a 95 percent approval rating in all key areas of an effective school, including instructional programs.
One of the keys to these gains is District 76’s “Sheltered English” program. For the past four years, this alternative, research-based program provides instruction for ELL students primarily in English, with Spanish language support only when needed. District 76 also has a dual language program, where 50 percent of the students are English-speaking and 50 percent are Spanish-speaking. Half of the instruction is in English and half in Spanish. It’s an optional program; parents choose to enroll their child in it. When parents are offered such important choices, the climate generally becomes more favorable to maintaining higher levels of involvement.
Barriers to Involvement
What do ELL parents want for their kids? The same thing as the other parents. They love their kids and they want what’s best for them. Nonetheless, involving parents of English language learners has posed a challenge to educators around the country for decades. The challenge goes well beyond language differences – poverty and family mobility are more common within this population.
It cannot be assumed that the home in which English is not the first language – or may not be spoken at all – is a nurturing and language-rich environment. The likelihood of both parents working at low-wage jobs is great, and this fact lowers the level of parent supervision children receive.
Culturally, these parents tend to be more trusting and dependent on the school than the other parents. ELL parents are more likely to tolerate poor teaching. They’re not familiar and comfortable enough with the school system to know how to complain. There may be no parent involvement or pressure from parents for their children to succeed. The same is not true of most English-speaking parents.
Something as basic to American parents as reading to their children is an uncommon practice in culturally diverse populations. The importance of reading to their children has to be emphasized and modeled for these parents.
Increasing involvement of parents of ELL students can be encouraged in numerous ways:
• Make parents of ELL students feel welcome at school. There has to be the sense that staff, beginning with the principal, want them involved in school.
• Hold parent education workshops specifically for the parents of ELL students. In District 76, the workshop presenters demonstrated effective techniques for reading to children, as well as tips about helping and supervising homework.
• Recognition that language can be a barrier for parents. It would be helpful to have someone who speaks the other language readily available to assist when needed.
• The requirement of a passport to re-enter the U.S., effective for the 2006-2007 school year, improved student attendance in January 2007. Fewer Mexican families took prolonged vacations during the two-week winter break.
• Translate school documents. This is obviously less of a priority for school populations where many parents can’t read.
• Have ELL parents serve as teacher/school aides or clerks, and provide a small per-hour salary (i.e. $10.00). This also offers administrators an avenue to grow your own teachers.
• Provide childcare and food during meetings to improve turnout, and even consider providing transportation.
The more exposure to a language, the greater the likelihood of successful language acquisition. Therefore, interaction between all students should be encouraged, and segregation of all types must be vigilantly guarded against. Recess and lunch provide ELL students with informal opportunities to be exposed to the English language. There is little if any pressure on children to speak fluently when they are at recess with their classmates. When they are playing, they find ways to communicate. There will be mistakes and laughing but also learning. It is a marvelous time to practice language. The same is true of the lunch table.
There are many examples of the mandate for bilingual education not working in Illinois school districts. While District 76 still has a long way to go to bring parent involvement up to the ideal level, we recognize its importance and continue to work toward that goal. The record of achievement by English language learners in Diamond Lake School District 76 demonstrates how giving individual school districts the flexibility to implement their own, research-based programs, such as sheltered English, that can provide substantial educational benefits to students and families in those schools.
Diamond Lake School District Superintendent Roger Prosise has been a superintendent in small public suburban school districts in Illinois for 15 years. This article is based on a September, 2008 paper, “English Language Learners in Illinois: What Worked and What Didn’t,” published by the Lexington Institute.
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