The concentration on Spanish-speaking students in St. Charles Unit District 303's English Language Learners program has at least one school board member concerned about the 36 other foreign languages students speak at home.
A school board committee recently received a report on the ELL program that showed there are 502 students in the program. That includes students in the district's relatively new expanded bilingual program. But only 80 percent of ELL students come from Spanish-speaking households. There are 100 other students in the district who speak three dozen other foreign languages. The non-Spanish students are tested and evaluated using the same tests in English that the majority of the districts' students take. There are also some Spanish-language students in the district who choose not to enter the district's bilingual program. They are also immersed into English-only classes.
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For school board member Kathy Hewell, that begged the question of which students end up doing better.
"That makes me wonder about the 100 students," Hewell said. "Is one program really better than the other?"
Test scores for non-English speaking students is key to thousands of dollars in Title III federal funding the district receives to teach English to non-natives speakers. This is the fifth year the district has had to write a new educational plan for those students because it didn't meet benchmark objectives for improvement.
District staff members told Hewell it is hard to compare the bilingual and non-bilingual ELL programs because the timelines for reaching certain benchmarks are different. Mainly, students in the bilingual program are taught with the goal of being fluent in both English and Spanish. That's not the case for English emersion students, including those who speak other foreign languages at home, Superintendent Don Schlomann said.
"Short term, you can make a case for the fact that, in three years, the (English only) program is probably slightly ahead in terms of being able to take a test in English," Schlomann said. "But long-term, the bilingual program is much better. However, I don't know of any way that we could offer 36 bilingual programs."
Finding staff who speak and can teach the other foreign languages would be one obstacle to expanding the bilingual program. The other, and main issue, would be a huge increase in cost.
All students, bilingual or not, are taught only in English by the time they reach sixth grade. There is no plan to extend the bilingual program beyond the elementary schools.
District officials view next year as the "education cliff" for Title III money. If the district doesn't meet the benchmark goals again, state officials may require the district to modify its curriculum program, fire and replace education personnel and/or strip the district of Title III funds.
Schlomann reminded school board members that the state generally views the district's ELL program as exemplary. Many school districts have had problems reaching the ever higher benchmarks for graduating non-English speakers out of the ELL program on a timely basis, he said. And the relatively small number of students in the ELL program can create wild swings in the percentage of students hitting the benchmarks from year to year.
That said, the district is trying a few new initiatives this year. There will be a new bilingual section for preschool students, including the addition of another teacher. There is also a new Latino family literacy project in the district. The idea there is to help Spanish-speaking parents gain the capacity to help their children hit literacy goals in both English and Spanish.