How dual-language learning is taking hold in West Chicago

  • Dual-language teacher Tammara Mejia teaches her first-grade class at Gary Elementary School in West Chicago. Whether they are native Spanish-speakers or native English-speakers, every student at the school learns both languages from kindergarten to fifth grade.

      Dual-language teacher Tammara Mejia teaches her first-grade class at Gary Elementary School in West Chicago. Whether they are native Spanish-speakers or native English-speakers, every student at the school learns both languages from kindergarten to fifth grade. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Jaime C. Torne is a fifth-grade dual-language teacher at Gary Elementary School in West Chicago. The school is a "two-way" dual-language school, which means students are a mix of native English speakers and native Spanish speakers.

      Jaime C. Torne is a fifth-grade dual-language teacher at Gary Elementary School in West Chicago. The school is a "two-way" dual-language school, which means students are a mix of native English speakers and native Spanish speakers. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • First-graders Robert Smoley and Evelyn Lopez work on problems in both English and Spanish at Gary Elementary School in West Chicago.

      First-graders Robert Smoley and Evelyn Lopez work on problems in both English and Spanish at Gary Elementary School in West Chicago. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Gary Elementary School in West Chicago is a "two-way" dual-language school, which means the students come into the program speaking two languages and representing two cultures.

      Gary Elementary School in West Chicago is a "two-way" dual-language school, which means the students come into the program speaking two languages and representing two cultures. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 10/8/2015 11:58 PM

Tammara Mejia asks her first-grade students something in Spanish and they respond in English.

Down the hall, Jaime C. Torne teaches science in English and his fifth-grade students converse with each other in Spanish.

 

Both classrooms in West Chicago Elementary District 33 feature a mix of native Spanish-speakers and native English-speakers.

"We're actually honoring and keeping both languages," Torne said. "We want them to be bilingual, we want them to be bicultural and we want them to be skilled in biliteracy, so they can read, write, speak and listen in both languages fluently."

For the past three years, this has been a common sight at the district's Gary Elementary School, where every student is taught English and Spanish, from kindergarten to fifth grade.

But as the dual-language program has gained popularity, so has the waiting list to get into Gary. Last year, more than 100 families were turned away.

"The Hispanic parents are very happy about the program because they really want their kids to be fluent in both languages," Torne said. "The tough part of the program is just having enough English speakers because of the demographics of the community. You want a model where 50 percent of the classroom is English speaking, 50 percent is Spanish. But it's hard to do that sometimes because of things that are out of our control."

To address the growing popularity -- mostly among Spanish-speaking families -- the district agreed to introduce dual-language programs at all of its elementary schools at the start of this school year. The only difference is that the dual-language classrooms at the other schools are "one-way," or comprised only of native Spanish speakers.

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"One-way" students will still learn English and Spanish, but it is different from the "two-way" dual-language setup at Gary, where students come into the program speaking two languages and representing two cultures.

"We've always had enough room for our English speakers at Gary School, for that 50 percent English-speaking group, we have just not had enough room for the Spanish-speakers," said Kristina Davis, assistant superintendent for learning. "We would expand (two-way) if we could, but we don't have enough English-speakers in the district to expand that."

New one-way dual-language classrooms are now in place in kindergarten, first and second grade at Indian Knoll, Pioneer, Turner, Wegner and Currier schools. The program will expand to third, fourth and fifth grade as the current second-graders move up.

"In the past, after the lottery (to get into Gary) it would always be a very difficult time. You'd have parents coming in upset," Davis said. "The reaction this year was a lot less stress, a lot more satisfaction. Parents were a lot happier."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Davis said all the district's schools are federally mandated to offer TBE, or transitional bilingual education, to the district's Spanish-speaking population. However, the ultimate goal of TBE is "acquisition of English only."

"You use the native language to ensure that students do not miss out on content areas," she said. "The transition to all English is very quick. By third grade, they're pretty much transitioned to English only and no native language is supported after that."

When Gary's classrooms starting filling up, the Spanish-speaking students who didn't get into the dual-language program were placed in TBE classrooms at other schools. But that was disappointing for parents who wanted their children to grow up learning both languages.

"We had parents coming to us saying, 'This isn't right. How can you do this to us? We know what the benefits are, we know our children will do better in the long run, we know the opportunities for them in the future are greater if they're bilingual and bicultural. Why are you denying this opportunity?'" Davis said.

Last year, more than 100 parents of Spanish-speaking students petitioned the board of education, asking that it expand the dual-language program. The board asked district administrators to look into a solution.

"We decided to replace the TBE program, that promotes English only, with dual-language, one-way," Davis said.

The introduction of "one-way" does not impact classrooms that teach English only for native English speakers.

"That's a misconception in the community, that we're doing away with general education in favor of dual-language," Davis said. "The only change is in the classrooms that were TBE, we're just offering them an opportunity to learn both languages, as opposed to just English."

Even at a young age, some students say they already are recognizing the benefits of being in a dual-language program.

Cristian Leon started kindergarten knowing only Spanish. Now, the fifth-grader can read, write, speak and understand both languages. He even teaches his Spanish-speaking parents the English he is learning in school.

"You get more opportunities when you get a job," he said. "The more languages you learn, the more opportunities you get."

Fifth-grader Allison Balner said she was nervous when she started the dual-language program because she didn't know Spanish at all, but now she is confident using it.

"My teacher brought me into the language and it was really fun getting to learn both languages," she said.

Davis said she is hopeful more people will continue to see why dual-language is a good choice.

"It's becoming a hot topic," she said. "TBE was always considered remedial, compensatory, more of a program for struggling students and this is changing. More and more schools and communities are realizing the benefits of being bilingual and not just that, the achievement is higher. There are a lot of districts that are moving over to this in lieu of TBE."

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