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Article updated: 2/14/2014 8:49 AM

Some Illinois schools teaching 2 languages

Associated Press  Xiyue Li, left, and Yixing Jin participate in a lesson in Lihui Zhang’s Mandarin Chinese language class at Martin Luther King Elementary School in Urbana.

Associated Press Xiyue Li, left, and Yixing Jin participate in a lesson in Lihui Zhang's Mandarin Chinese language class at Martin Luther King Elementary School in Urbana.

 
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By Associated Press

CHAMPAIGN -- English-speakers say "book." Spanish speakers say "libro."

Students who go through dual-language classes will say it both ways, as they'll finish elementary school fluent in English and Spanish.

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Dual-language education is catching on around the country, including Champaign-Urbana.

Next school year, Champaign's school district will offer dual-language kindergarten and first-grade classes. Urbana's dual-language program is in its second year, and the district is looking into starting a second program -- one with Mandarin Chinese as the second language.

The increasingly popular concept combines native speakers of two languages in the same classroom -- and teaches them in both. The goal: that they'll be able to speak and read in two languages long before they even reach high school.

"Being bilingual is a great asset both on a personal and professional level," said Maria Alanis, Champaign's director of English as a Second Language and bilingual education. "It opens doors for you."

Urbana's model has students learning 90 percent in Spanish, 10 percent in English at the start. Those numbers gradually change to where students learn equally in both by fourth grade.

Champaign's system will have its dual-language students learning half in English, half in Spanish throughout their elementary years.

But both districts share a mission: young students becoming what Alanis calls "bilingual, biliterate and bicultural" -- and never segregated by the language they speak.

In Unit 4 alone, Alanis said, students speak 74 different languages. More than 1,000 of them identify themselves as Latino.

‘A leg up'

Urbana parent Pamela Williams said she and her husband, James Cheers III, applied for the dual-language program at Prairie Elementary, but only after careful discussion. They worried about whether their 5-year-old, Eleanor, would fall behind on learning grammar, reading or spelling in English.

Williams sometimes notices that her daughter doesn't know how to pronounce some vowel sounds when reading in English. But the mother is quick to explain that English differs from Spanish in that way.

"It's not the end of the world because there are grammar rules that she's going to encounter either way," Williams said. "That's difficult for any child. I don't think it's insurmountable. I think it's worth it."

Williams believes the program will give Eleanor more opportunities as an adult -- and that alone makes their decision worth it.

"My husband and I felt strongly about the fact that (the world is) not so isolated any more," she said. "The idea of having our child learning a second language from the start of her education is a good idea. ... We see this as a leg up in preparing her for life and her career."

Big benefits

Unit 4's long-term plan calls for its dual-language program eventually growing into a school -- the district's 12th -- in the former Carrie Busey Elementary building at 1605 W. Kirby Ave.

That building will also house the district's International Academy, for students who come from other countries with gaps in their formal education.

That will help provide an outlet for record enrollments throughout Unit 4, said Susan Zola, Champaign's assistant superintendent. In recent years, the district has added "bubble" classrooms to some elementary schools, just to accommodate the growing number of kindergartners. All 11 of Champaign's elementary schools are now out of space, Zola said.

Another benefit of creating one location as the dual-language hub: students' access to a bilingual social worker, a bilingual school psychologist, a bilingual specialized math teacher and so on.

Leal, Prairie programs working

Joe Wiemelt, who oversees the Urbana district's bilingual and multicultural programs, says dual-language students at Leal and Prairie elementary schools have exceeded everyone's expectations -- both academically and socially. That has the district pondering bigger things.

"Students are learning across race, class and two languages," Wiemelt said. "They're developing as friends, and families are learning and developing and growing together through this program. We are seeing strengths that are different and unique. You don't see it in any other type of programming."

Urbana's dual-language students are outperforming their peers on various "benchmark" tests, he said, and there's no reason to believe adding another language wouldn't generate similar results.

About 80 native Mandarin speakers attend Urbana schools. Thirty go to King Elementary.

Wiemelt cited two districts in Chicagoland with Mandarin-English programs. He plans to reach out to administrators at both as he researches the idea.

"Also, the ability to communicate with and learn alongside another linguistic group is something you can't do if you're monolingual," he said.

"It will be more responsive to the needs of families and staff," Zola said.

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