Most kids get excited about pizza and cupcakes when their parents let them host birthday parties. Chase Dorn always preferred sushi and seaweed.
The 15-year-old Conant High School sophomore wants to go into law and work for a Japanese company. And while she has no Japanese heritage, she speaks the language fluently, impressing natives with how accurate her accent is.
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Dual language in practiceEducators and parents recognize the value of helping children achieve bilingualism. Here's how the classes work:
Two-way dual language classrooms have half of the students already fluent in English and half of the students fluent in another language -- in the suburbs, it's usually Spanish, but Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54 also offers dual language with Japanese.
Most schools start out kindergartners with 80 to 90 percent of instruction in the foreign language. That gives English-dominant students the chance for more immersion and doesn't take away from non--English-speaking students' acquisition of their second language. During the next few years, the foreign language instruction is reduced until it makes up 50 percent of the school day.
Ÿ Studies have shown that children who speak two or more languages have higher-level cognitive functioning than their peers -- their brains simply work better, said Becky Wiegel, a dual language instructional coach at Barrington Area Unit District 220.
Ÿ Elgin Area School District U-46 officials cite research that shows dual language education as the only model that eliminates the achievement gap for English Language Learners.
"People are always so surprised when I tell them I speak Japanese," Chase says. "It's always going to be a good asset. It's become a big part of my life, and I wouldn't have it any other way."
Chase's connection to Japanese language and culture was cemented over eight years in one of the nation's only Japanese-English dual language programs, which started at Dooley Elementary School in Schaumburg in 2001.
Modern dual language programs have taken off in the past five to eight years, said Edward Tabet-Cubero, deputy director of Dual Language Education of New Mexico, a nonprofit technical assistance center that works with school districts across the country to implement dual language programs. He has been helping Elgin Area School District U-46 with its nearly unprecedented rollout of Spanish/English instruction, the planning for which started about three years ago.
Districts in Carpentersville, Crystal Lake, Mundelein, Elk Grove, Naperville, Vernon Hills and Woodstock also have dual language programs at various stages of development. Most offer Spanish and English as the program languages, but Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54 and Barrington Area Unit District 220 also have programs in Chinese and English.
Educators and parents are increasingly seeing bilingualism as an asset, forcing program expansion across the region and creating waiting lists for the first time.
"It's about changing the mindset of this as a remedial program for immigrant students to an enrichment program for all students to be competitive in a global marketplace," Tabet-Cubero said.
The majority of dual language programs across the suburbs serve half non-English speakers and half English speakers. Schaumburg's District 54 launched its first dual language program for Spanish speakers in 1994 but created the Japanese program at Dooley Elementary School at a time when Japanese was the second-most-common foreign language spoken.
For the two-way dual language programs, as they're called, districts always strive to keep an even balance of students learning each language.
But both suburban Chinese programs are designed for an entire class of English speakers to learn the language, and U-46 leads the way in offering one-way dual language classes for its Spanish speaking students to become academically competent in reading, writing and speaking their first language as well as English.
The shift has been a sea change in the way U-46 approaches education for its English Language Learners. And everyone who discusses the ambitious expansion of dual language in the Elgin area district points to leadership by Superintendent José Torres as the reason for it.
"In the United States, we've had a schizophrenic policy that says let's make sure all kids who don't speak English learn English, and then when they get to high school they have to take a foreign language," Torres said.
Torres, who grew up in Puerto Rico, spoke Spanish first and said he learned English most efficiently when he had support in his native language at the same time he was learning new concepts. As an educator, he was convinced by research showing dual language as the only program for English Language Learners that closes the achievement gap. In turn Torres pushed his staff members to offer one-way dual language to Spanish speakers in 29 elementary schools last year.
U-46 also offered two-way dual language classes in seven of those schools, increasing that number to 16 this year -- and that's compared to most districts that offer just one or two classrooms of dual language per grade level.
Both types of programs are expanding to higher grade levels in U-46 as the enrolled students age through the program -- a common pace for growth across the region. Fourth-grade teachers had two days of intensive professional development Wednesday and Thursday with another session scheduled in May to help shift their teaching from a format that preferences English to one that values Spanish and English equally.
Andrea Gaitan, a teacher at Hilltop Elementary School in Elgin, said she is excited for her students to be able to see the value in their native language. They will be called "emerging bilinguals" instead of "English Language Learners," she said.
Preparing for life
Community Unit District 220 in Barrington started offering Spanish and English dual language classes in 2004 and added a Chinese immersion program in Mandarin last year. Officials in Barrington and Schaumburg both said the decision to include Chinese options for students was in recognition of China's global power and growing influence.
Districts want their students to be ready to effectively navigate a world in which it is increasingly important to communicate beyond national borders.
But for Becky Wiegel, a bilingual instructional coach and soon-to-be dual language summer school principal, the benefits of the growing program stretch beyond just language acquisition.
"It's about the cognitive brain development that comes along with it," Wiegel said. "When students speak two languages, their brains work better. That's been proven in research."
Districts with programs entering their second decades have plenty of test scores to back up anecdotal reports by parents and teachers about dual language students' high achievement.
Julie Colgrove, director of language and culture for Schaumburg's District 54, said MAP and ISAT results have consistently shown dual language students performing at the same levels or above their peers. Even the young Chinese immersion students who started last year scored exceedingly well, Colgrove said.
That has been a factor in the increasing demand for the program.
Douglas MacArthur Elementary School in Hoffman Estates is now an entirely dual language school where kindergarten students have only the option of learning in Spanish and English.
"The demand for dual language has steadily increased over the years to the point that there were minimal numbers of kindergarten students who didn't want dual language," Colgrove said.
What comes next?
For many schools, the next stage of dual language planning will be moving beyond elementary and middle school curriculums.
Chase Dorn, the 15-year-old Japanese speaker, said the height of her fluency was in sixth through eighth grades. At the high school level she doesn't have options to challenge her study of Japanese.
Chase is working with Dooley Elementary School Principal Marion Friebus-Flaman to flesh out opportunities for the dual language program graduates coming behind her. She will present her ideas April 29 at the Schaumburg Library and again in May at Conant High School's Gifted Expo.
Several districts also are in the process of creating challenging Spanish language classes at the high school level that will allow their students to spend half of their days speaking Spanish even after they age out of formal dual language programs.
District 54's Colgrove said moving forward with dual language education is a must.
"We will do our students and our children a disservice if we don't promote language learning while they're young and help them as they prepare for their future in the global world and the global economy," Colgrove said. "It's so important."