Steve Drey, the father of a first-grade student at Juliette Low Elementary School in Arlington Heights, moved to the neighborhood a few years ago largely because he wanted his son to learn two languages.
After doing some research, Drey had learned about Elk Grove Township District 59's dual language program where children are taught in Spanish and English. The program also has Polish classrooms.
Though he was excited about the program, Drey was worried about enrolling his son in a class taught in 80 percent Spanish in the first year.
"There's all this pressure in general in our world that they're going to be behind in kindergarten and never go to college," Drey said. "That was a concern for sure, but a few months into kindergarten we saw he was coming home and learning to read in both languages."
Still, District 59 has grappled with criticism over the program's model, particularly as students struggle on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, the state standardized test for third- through eighth-graders.
More English sooner?
The district had a 4-percentage-point drop in students meeting or exceeding state standards last school year, according to figures released last week. However, a Daily Herald analysis shows the district continues to perform at similar levels to other schools with comparable levels of poverty, a key factor in test scores.
At school board meetings over the summer, upset homeowners blamed depressed property values on the district's performance on the tests, which real estate websites like Zillow use to judge schools. And they offered various solutions, including busing lower-performing students to other schools in the district or changing curriculum to rigorously "teach for the test."
But the idea taken most seriously and considered by the school board was remodeling the dual language program to teach more English sooner. The district teaches incoming students in 80 percent Spanish and 20 percent English. The curriculum adds 10 percentage points more English in each grade until there's an even split by third grade -- the first year students take state-mandated standardized tests.
Thinking more globally
Changing demographics -- notably a larger population of students speaking languages other than English -- spurred the district to create the dual language program in 2009. About 1,500 students districtwide are in the program, which is one of several learning choices offered parents.
Today, 70 percent of children entering the district speak a language other than English at home, with more than 60 languages represented. All but two schools in the district have had increases in the category of "limited English proficient" since 2007. At Rupley Elementary School in Elk Grove Village, the state considers more than half the students to fit in the category compared to just 6 percent a decade ago.
Nahyeli Ramos, the mother of a first-grade student in the dual language program at Juliette Low Elementary School, speaks Spanish at home. Through an interpreter, Ramos said she enrolled her child in the dual language program because it will provide more opportunity.
"I hear all the time that we live in the United States, so we need to learn English," Ramos said. "That may be the case, but being bilingual -- those opportunities for my child are not just going to be in the United States. I'm thinking of my child more globally."
Building the bridge
After several meetings debating possible changes in the dual language program, such as an even split starting in kindergarten, the school board recently directed the district to continues its practices.
"Every parent that is involved in the program wants their children to be fluent in English," Juliette Low Elementary School Principal Susan Ejma said, adding that it's "a big misconception" that parents in the program don't want their children to learn English.
Another misconception, the district says, is that students have to relearn subjects in the other language, taking twice as long to finish curriculum. Teachers implement a "bridge" at the end of each unit to connect the languages.
In a classroom of fourth- and fifth-graders at Juliette Low recently, students were -- coincidentally -- tasked with building bridges using toothpicks and marshmallows.
After learning about engineering concepts such as span, beam and support in Spanish, the students started learning the words in English. These are the types of academic terms and concepts students may not learn if they only spoke English or Spanish in school, officials said.
"At home, the most they'll get is that 'kitchen table talk,'" said Griselda Pirtle, director of multilingual programs. "We're not leaving it to chance that somewhere along the lines you're going to get this math vocabulary in English. We're being very deliberate about that."
• Learn more about the district's PARCC scores and the Daily Herald poverty index at www.reportcards.dailyherald.com.