'It's a great privilege to say I know two languages': U-46 marks 50 years of bilingual education

Growing up in a predominantly Spanish-speaking household, Giselle Naranjo wanted to stay connected to her roots and to family members who spoke only her native tongue, while fitting in at school and in a community where English dominated.

The 17-year-old Larkin High School senior, the daughter of Mexican American parents, has participated in Elgin Area School District U-46's bilingual program since elementary school and is graduating from it next spring with an added distinction of earning an Illinois State Seal of Biliteracy.

"It has connected me more with my identity," Naranjo said of the program. "It has helped me better understand my culture, my parents and myself, emotionally, mentally."

U-46's bilingual program is marking 50 years of helping students become bilingual and biliterate. It has evolved from just a few classes at select sites into an award-winning dual language program offered districtwide starting in prekindergarten and going through high school.

Last school year saw the first graduating class of high school students from the dual language program. And the first group of students who started in the program in first grade, including Naranjo, will graduate next spring.

For the 2022-23 school year, U-46 has roughly 12,000 students enrolled in the dual language program, making it one of the largest dual language districts in the country.

"It made me feel welcome and connected here and not feel isolated from everybody else. ... Like I belong, like I'm being represented," said Naranjo, who certainly is not in the minority at the state's second-largest school district.

U-46's population of 35,377 students is 56.4% Hispanic, 24.4% white, 8.5% Asian, 6.2% Black and 3.3% two or more races, Illinois School Report Card data show.

Naranjo, who is on the superintendent's Student Advisory Council, says not losing her Spanish language and her identity helped her gain confidence to succeed in other aspects of academics.

"It's a great privilege to say I know two languages," she said. "It's just a great gift to be able to communicate."

It's a skill Naranjo hopes will translate into an asset for a future career in business and criminal justice.

<h3 class="breakHead">Bilingual education</h3>

The Bilingual Education Act of 1968 is the first federal recognition of the needs of students with limited English-speaking ability.

The law has undergone four reauthorizations with amendments. Over time, the definition of the population served has been broadened from limited English speaking to limited English-proficient students.

U-46 embraced the new law's requirements with enthusiasm amid an explosion in the Elgin area's Latino population.

"One of the things I always admired about the district was how they were very proactive," said Lois Sands, a retired district bilingual teacher and former principal of Streamwood Elementary Early Childhood Center, which served bilingual students. "Before it became law, they had already been offering bilingual services."

Sands, 70, of Elgin, is originally from Uruguay and studied in Mexico. She said bilingual educators like herself saw students' Spanish skills as a strength that could be transferred when learning a new language.

"Keeping kids strong in their home language was an emphasis," she said. "And you would notice the difference. Students who were strong readers in their native language made that transition to English more quickly.

"It was just common sense. I believe in it so strongly. I didn't speak English to my son until he was about 8 because I wanted him to maintain Spanish. You see the world in a different way and you are open to other languages, also."

In the early days of the bilingual program, Sands helped organize meetings with Hispanic parents to teach them how to support students at home.

"We would model to them reading to their children," she said.

Such parent resources later evolved into U-46's Family Welcome Center, which helps newcomers and primarily immigrant families navigate the school system, and tests students' English language skills to determine whether they qualify for the dual language program.

The center was established in 2005 to address the district's changing demographics, reflecting the diversity within the 11 communities U-46 serves. It has helped guide countless families through the enrollment process and get acclimated.

<h3 class="breakHead">Language evolution</h3>

U-46's 80:20 dual language program serves Spanish-speaking English learners from prekindergarten through eighth grade. It offers a bilingual educational environment in which students are taught literacy and academic content in English and Spanish starting in kindergarten, where 80% of classroom instruction is in Spanish and 20% in English.

As students move up in grades, the portion of English instruction increases by 10 percentage points per grade until both languages reach parity by third grade.

High school students in the dual language program are required to take four years of Spanish language arts and four years of English language arts. Coursework includes Advanced Placement offerings in Spanish.

Last school year, the district adopted honors Spanish Language Arts/Latinx Studies curriculum as an elective and capstone course for seniors in the dual language program.

The goal is to foster bilingualism, biliteracy and multiculturalism. Officials say that helps students improve academically while incorporating awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity.

The graduating Class of 2024 will have students who have been with the program since kindergarten.

"Our district has done a fantastic job of committing to the dual language model, so much so that it's part of board policy," said Griselda Pirtle, U-46 director of the Multilingual and Multicultural Education Department.

Today's dual language program comes from an entirely different mindset than its predecessor, the Transitional Bilingual Education model, in which students were required to exit the program once they reached proficiency in English. The earlier model did not promote bilingualism.

"The transitional model was more of like a remedial ... 'let's fix them because they can't speak English' type of mindset," Pirtle said. "Whereas the dual language program is more of like enrichment."

It capitalizes on and helps maintain students' home language skills instead of seeing them as a deficit, she said.

More than 100 native languages, other than English, are spoken by students in the district. Nearly 70% of district students speak another language at home. U-46 offers resource teachers for some other languages, such as Gujarati, Polish and Urdu, but there aren't enough students to establish a dual language model for those languages, officials said.

Pirtle said there are proven cognitive benefits that come from being bilingual, and many qualitative measures show U-46's dual language program is helping students gain a leg up over their peers by expanding students' worldview, promoting multiculturalism and helping them gain the 21st-century skills sought by colleges and employers.

  Elgin Area School District U-46 is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its bilingual program. Brian Hill/
  Elgin High School teacher Juan Figueroa works with his dual language class. Elgin Area School District U-46 is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its bilingual program. More than 12,000 students are enrolled in the district's dual language program this year. Brian Hill/
  Elgin High School teacher Juan Figueroa works with his dual language class. Elgin Area School District U-46 is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its bilingual program. Brian Hill/
  Elgin High School teacher Juan Figueroa works with his dual language class. Elgin Area School District U-46 is marking the 50th anniversary of its bilingual program this year. Brian Hill/
In this Jan, 4, 1980, photo, Laotian students in Duansamone Sivilay's bilingual class learn how to trace and cut a Christmas tree. Elgin Area School District U-46's bilingual program is marking 50 years. Courtesy of Elgin History Museum
In this Jan, 4, 1980, photo, third-grader Mee Thao tests her artistry skills using an oversized pen with a furry top to color in a bilingual class at Elgin Area School District U-46. Courtesy of Elgin History Museum
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