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What will be impact of Spanish-only preschool classes on young Latinos?

What will be impact of Spanish-only preschool classes on young Latinos?

Hold your breath for Latino members of the Illinois high school class of 2026. Who knows what recent changes in how they are to be taught will do for them. Or…

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Mayo 23, 2022

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Hold your breath for Latino members of the Illinois high school class of 2026. Who knows what recent changes in how they are to be taught will do for them.

Or to them.

New rules requiring pre-school English Language Learners (ELLs) to be educated according to the same standards as for kindergarten through 12th grade ELLs were adopted last month by the Illinois State Board of Education. The rules, which are expected to sail through the final legislative process in time for the 2010-2011 school year, will make Illinois the most prescriptive state in the union for identifying and educating English Language Learners.

This will affect hundreds of thousands of ELL students -- the fastest-growing segment of the study body in Illinois.

The overwhelming majority of these students come from Spanish-speaking households, and if they have 20 or more peers in the same grade level, they're entitled to a classroom with a Spanish-speaking teacher. Children whose native languages are not Spanish also must have 20 or more grade-level peers to qualify for language-specific instruction and, therefore, are rarely isolated in non-English-speaking classrooms the way Spanish-speaking kids are.

The thought of 3-, 4- and 5-year-old Hispanic kids getting stuck in Spanish-language classrooms so they can be taught beginning literacy skills in their parents' native language before being taught the basic tenets of English makes me want to poke my eyeballs out. Despite widely accepted research that says teaching literacy skills to a child in his or her native language leads to better English-acquisition, I -- like Arizona, California and Massachusetts, who've turned away from this educational philosophy -- am skeptical.

Why? Mostly because I know that what works modestly in the lab does not always transfer to the classroom -- especially when there already are too few qualified teachers for the many non-English-speaking students.

Plus, in my short time as a bilingual teacher, I witnessed horrors such as underqualified teachers who never felt the need to address their students in English. And teenage U.S.-born students still confined to Spanish-only classrooms because the "transitional bilingual" program had never made them truly bilingual or transitioned them to mainstream English-speaking classrooms.

Because I've had such experiences, I turned to two less-emotional experts to soothe my fears that Illinois' educational system is about to disintegrate for children who happen not to speak English by the age of 3.

"This goes back to the bilingual education laws put on the books back in the '70's, before 'preschool for all' was popularized," said Reyna Hernandez, a policy analyst at the Latino Policy Forum. "This isn't really a new idea. The state was looking at where there needed to be cleanup in the legal language that had artificially limited rules to K through 12."

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She also stressed that "starting in 2014, these rules will mean students will be taught by teachers that are certified in language acquisition" and she said this is "one of the greatest points."

Nancy Wagner, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction at Arlington Heights' multinationally diverse School District 59, says there are always risk and costs -- in this case to teachers who must get additional education and to school districts that must pay for that upgraded expertise -- but this definitely is a step up.

"The laws regarding preschool used to not have anything regarding English instruction; teachers weren't specially trained and could basically screen all the kids, identify them as ELLs and teach them in whatever language they wanted," she said. "There are many factors to take into consideration when you're talking about such young children, but no program wants its bilingual students to be the lowest tracked program. The goal of the program HAS to be English language proficiency."

Gosh, I hope so. Better-trained preschool teachers who can effectively address the special needs of English language learners sure can't hurt.

Still, the proof will be in the pudding, so keep your fingers crossed for Latino members of the Illinois high school class of 2026.

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