Still no word on bilingual education policy report

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A year ago, the Bilingual Education and World Language Commission was expected to issue a report laying the ground work for a recommendation that would represent a major shift in the way non-English speakers are taught in the district.

It was never released.

So, where is the report? District officials say they just haven’t found the “right time” to release it, but others suspect that making it public is delayed as CPS defended its bilingual program in federal court.

A year ago, the Bilingual Education and World Language Commission was expected to issue a report laying the ground work for a recommendation that would represent a major shift in the way non-English speakers are taught in the district.

It was never released.

So, where is the report? District officials say they just haven’t found the “right time” to release it, but others suspect that making it public is delayed as CPS defended its bilingual program in federal court. Indeed, the district wants the court to release it from the desegregation consent decree and one of the key issues is whether the district has met its obligation to English Language Learners.

“None of this happens in a vacuum,” says Ricardo Meza, the staff attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund who, as a friend of the court, spent more than a week questioning the access that CPS students have to quality bilingual education in a hearing that ended on Feb. 6. He presented testimony from experts who said that ELL students sometimes don’t receive the amount of bilingual instruction they need and other times don’t have access to academic material in their native language.

“They should deal with the problems instead of trying to cover them up,” Meza says.

There is no timetable for when U.S. District Judge Charles P. Kocoras might rule on whether to lift the consent decree, which dates back to a 1982 settlement between the district and the U.S. Attorney General’s office.

District officials would not comment specifically on the assertion that the commission’s report was being kept under wraps until after the report’s release.

Diane Zendejas, the head of CPS World Language and Cultural Affairs, said last July that the report had been written and that it was being reviewed by the district’s law department. She predicted that it would be released in October.

Now, she says plans to release it are “very preliminary.”  Specific questions about whether the delay was linked to the desegregation hearing went unanswered.

Beatriz Ponze de Leon, who wrote the report and now works for CPS, says since its completion, district officials were dealing with other issues that would have complicated the release of the report and commission members didn’t want to be “entangled in those discussions.”

Two of the considerations Ponze de Leon mentioned were the desegregation case and the departure of CEO Arne Duncan, which was set in motion in mid-December.

However, she added that the district is moving forward with some of the recommendations in the report, such as hiring and training more bilingual literacy teachers.

The delay in releasing the commission’s report might also be related to political concerns about its support for dual language programs, which some believe may steer resources away from bilingual education and ELL students. 

Dual language programs split instructional time between student native language and English. By contrast, bilingual education programs provide partial instructions for students in their native language for a few years and then transition them to an entirely English curriculum.

Commission chair Clare Munana, who also sits on the Chicago Board of Education,  bemoans that students lose the ability to read and write in their native language, while native English speakers often aspire to communicate in two languages. While she and others concede that it would be difficult for the district to implement a true, full-scale dual language program, she said that she would like to see students maintain the ability to read and write in their native language. She also would like to see more native English speakers exposed to second languages.

Meza says today, there aren’t enough Spanish-speaking teachers to serve students already enrolled who are learning English. He questions whether it makes sense to stretch those resources further by pursuing a dual language curriculum. 

“Dual language is the Cadillac, but we are not even providing a Ford Pinto,” he says. “How can we even think of it?”

—Sarah Karp