Bilingual pre-K not yet a reality in all classrooms

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Maria Elena Orozco’s 6-year-old son Abraham, a native Spanish speaker, spent two years in preschool programs Orozco says were mostly in English.

This fall, he started kindergarten at Edwards Elementary. He was identified as a non-native English speaker, and put into a native-language class that is taught almost entirely in Spanish.

The language-switching Abraham has faced is exactly the sort of scenario that new state rules – the first of their kind in the nation – aim to avoid.

Starting this year, state-funded pre-kindergarten programs administered by school districts are required to provide bilingual and English as a Second Language instruction to the 3,338 preschool students identified as English learners in the district. But many specifics about the rules’ implementation have yet to be worked out, and teachers are not required to have bilingual and ESL endorsements until 2014.

In the absence of teachers who are knowledgeable about bilingual education, it is not yet a reality in a number of Chicago-area preschool classrooms. Julie Dakers, the director of early childhood development services at Christopher House, notes that “most of the (centers) are just not there.”

Dakers is part of a committee convened by the Latino Policy Forum that is working to get the word out about the new regulations. The group may offer professional development or set up tours of model sites that are in compliance with the regulations.

“They are trying to wrap their head around it. So many providers don’t know what it is, what the law means, how it’s going to affect them… a majority are just overwhelmed with the idea,” she says.

Reyna Hernandez, a research and policy associate at the Latino Policy Forum, says it will take time before programs can fully implement the new regulations.

A lack of additional funding has made the situation more difficult. The total amount of bilingual funding given out by the state took a 7 percent dive this year from fiscal year 2010. However, the money is divided according to the total number of students identified as English learners. This year, for the first time, that category includes preschoolers from districts around the state.

Before this year, a few districts with bilingual preschool programs received state funding, but far fewer preschoolers were included in the bilingual student numbers because school districts were not required to identify them.

A document from ISBE shows that CPS received nearly $2.02 million more in bilingual funding than it would have without the more than 3,000 preschool students identified as English language learners.

But Paula Cottone, deputy chief officer of early childhood education for the district, says none of the funding has come in to the Office of Early Childhood Education.

District spokeswoman Monique Bond is still looking into whether CPS received the money and what it was used for. She notes that the state still owes CPS more than $260 million.

Even though the teacher certification requirement doesn’t take effect until July 2014, all the rule’s other requirements are currently in place, Hernandez notes. But it’s not clear how programs that largely lack bilingual and ESL-certified staff are supposed to implement bilingual programming.
 
Because demand for bilingual teachers outstrips supply, a teacher shortage has been an issue at the K-12 level for years; many early-childhood advocates expect that it will be even tougher to find teachers for children who speak lower-frequency languages.
 
The Illinois State Board of Education aims to release guidance for such programs this summer – a tight timeline for anyone trying to adopt that advice by next fall. It will schedule a “stakeholder meeting” soon to get input from professionals in the field.

But until the state comes out with its recommendations, it’s not clear what exactly programs are required to do.

“I think there’s a lot of confusion,” says Erie Neighborhood House executive director Celena Roldan. “I think it comes from the reality of what programs have to deal with in this current [funding] climate. When you know what your reality is, and you know what’s available to you, you kind of make the regulations fit.”

She adds: “We know the best way to teach bilingual education is to have certified, quality teachers. (But) it’s going to be difficult… to have one of those teachers in every single classroom,” a scenario that could result in bilingual teachers that rotate to different classrooms.

Learning about the regulations has changed the way Erie House does its instruction, Roldan says. Previously, staff would give English language learners extra explanations in their native language when needed, going back and forth between Spanish and English.

“Now we are realizing it needs to be more intensive instruction… (with) the whole reading time done in the child’s language,” Roldan says.

CPS is also figuring out how to advise schools, and it has held focus groups around the issue.
 
“We are working on program designs for schools with multiple classrooms, but only 1 or 2 bilingual teachers, [as well as] schools with one room and no bilingual teacher,” says Paula Cottone, Deputy Chief Early Childhood Education Officer in CPS. “Our plan is to recommend a variety of different plans that schools may use until they are able to hire a bilingual Type 04 teacher.”

Schools with large populations of English learners have “bilingual lead teacher” positions; in those schools, the lead teachers have started working with pre-K instructors to provide support. Help can also come from bilingual coaches, who generally have ESL endorsements.

Although they often aren’t fluent in students’ first language, the coaches can give teachers pointers on how to adapt their instruction for the students learning English.

“In some cases, the program will not change because [classrooms] already have a bilingual teacher,” Cottone notes.

The state Gateways to Opportunity scholarship program, which generally is used only for early-childhood education credentials, also has allocated some of its funding to help teachers get bilingual and ESL endorsements.

Dakers’ program, like many in Chicago, tries to have staff members in each classroom who speak students’ native languages. It also assesses all children in their home languages.
However, classroom instruction is in English for the time being, until Christopher House decides what kind of approach it will take.

Some parents may want their children to learn just in the native language, or to focus on learning English with some bilingual supports, Dakers adds.

For her part, Orozco says she sees the purpose of pre-kindergarten as, largely, to begin learning the language. If the only available preschool in her area were in Spanish, she says, she would have just kept Abraham home and taught him in Spanish herself, rather than bringing him to school.
 
For the time being, it’s not clear if the practice of having someone in the classroom speaking the child’s language, while the bulk of the instruction is offered in English, actually complies with state law.

“Without a clear definition of that person’s role and what are the intended outcomes, I don’t think we get any closer to what the law is intended to achieve,” Dakers notes. “I think it’s just another option that’s being thrown around to try and make this less overwhelming for people.”
 
Christopher House may try to start a native-language program – or even a dual-language immersion program, which is something many centers have found attractive.
 
 “It sounds amazing, the idea that you could send a kid out of a program speaking and writing in two languages,” Dakers says, but she notes that the logistics could be difficult. “The other question would be, what good does it do if you don’t funnel them into an elementary program that continues to focus on dual-language (learning)?”

One center that has solved that problem is Carole Robertson Center for Learning. Its dual-language immersion program will soon expand to include every child it serves in early-childhood and after-school programs for students up to age 12.

The agency also has a partnership with Whittier Elementary, which has a dual-language immersion program, to ensure children can continue learning two languages once they leave the agency’s early-childhood classes.

“It’s an opportunity for our teachers to learn from them, and also for our families to know where they might be able to place their children,” says Cerathel Burnett, vice president of community development and operations at the agency.

Teachers from Carole Robertson Center have visited Whittier classrooms. Burnett says the working with Whittier has helped give teachers insights on where their students will eventually be going.

For the students who go elsewhere, “we are trying to make sure that (with) the other schools in the area where children transfer to, that we know exactly what they’re doing in their classrooms and they know exactly what we’re doing in ours,” Burnett says. “They may not have the same framework… but we are trying to make sure that we are all aware of each other’s work.”

Burnett also notes that her agency works with parents to make sure they have an understanding of their child’s language strengths and weaknesses, so they can advocate for the best placement for their child.
 
“It’s going to be a reliance on parents to have the level of comfort to have those discussions,” Burnett says.
 
Executive director Gail Nelson says the dual-language immersion has helped her center avoid the difficult question of whether to put English language learners in separate classrooms.
“I don’t think anybody wants to segregate children, but I think that the budget reality of programming this way is going to vary depending on where you are,” she says. “There could be a 100-kid program that meets the threshold of 20 (English language learners). It would be hard for them to go to the expense… of having five classrooms with four (English language learner) kids in each room.”

Finding teachers with bilingual and ESL endorsements is a key challenge programs face. In the meantime, many of the teachers who are leading classrooms don’t yet have the knowledge they would need to implement a bilingual education program.
 
“As providers we are overwhelmed,” Dakers says. “We don’t have the workforce, currently, to address this mandate.”
 
What’s more, some bilingual teachers may not have their endorsements in hand until as late as 2020. The 2014 requirement can be met by teachers who pass a language proficiency test and enroll in bilingual education classes. Those teachers will be able to get a provisional “Type 29” endorsement, and an additional six years to finish their coursework. (All English as a Second Language teachers, however, will need endorsements by the 2014 deadline.)

Earlier, it was thought that a shortage of schools offering bilingual coursework that focused on early-childhood education would make the situation even worse. But in addition to the Erikson Institute and DePaul University, National-Louis University is starting a bilingual certification program tailored for early-childhood teachers, and six more universities are hoping to offer similar plans of study.

Dakers’ program also faces an extra hurdle: competing with school-based programs for teachers.

Even though all CPS early-childhood teachers are required to have the same qualifications, including a bachelor’s degree in early-childhood education, there is a substantial gap between pay in community-based organization programs, like Christopher House, and pay in the schools, which is governed by the Chicago Teachers Union contract.
 
CPS has mandated that community-based programs pay lead teachers $40,000 for a 10-month school year, Dakers says, but staff members at her program are in the classroom up to 45 hours a week, year-round. Between squeezed agency budgets and insufficient state funding, “we still have a lot that we have to come up with in order to meet the $40,000,” she says.
Nelson expresses similar sentiments.
 
“This is going to play out really differently in the community-based portion of Preschool for All than on the CPS side, because we already have trouble competing on the salaries,” Nelson says. “The pressure CPS is going to be under to meet this, is going to cause (challenges) on our side of the system in terms of recruitment.”

Dakers is also concerned about finding staff who speak languages other than English and Spanish. About a dozen languages are spoken at her agency’s Uptown location.
 
In many cases, programs where a variety of languages are spoken will have the option to offer English as a Second Language instruction instead of lessons in a student’s native language. (A bilingual program isn’t required unless a school has 20 or more preschool English language learners with the same native language at the same program site.)
 
That is likely to be the case at Goudy Elementary. The school’s Head Start lead teacher, Erin Stanfill, has speakers of 12 different languages in her class.

She says that other than teacher certification, she isn’t aware of what changes her school will need to make to comply with the ESL requirement.

Stanfill notes Goudy teachers have always used strategies like a structured schedule, so children are able to pick up on routines; picture cues; and a curriculum focused on building English vocabulary.

She says that it can be difficult just to find speakers who can communicate in a language less commonly spoken than Spanish – let alone those who would be able to instruct students in their native language.

“We have staff members in the building who speak around 15 different languages, but there’s a difference between speaking another language, and being able to translate, and being able to say things in a language that’s understood by the culture,” Stanfill says. “I feel like probably, when everything was started (with this law), they were thinking mostly about the majority of Spanish speakers that there are.”

The school’s curriculum, for example, offers English and Spanish assessments and handouts for parents that aren’t available in other languages.

Until teachers earn endorsements and more guidance comes, many programs are in a sort of limbo – not knowing what changes to instruction the law requires, lacking certified teachers, and unable to come into compliance.

Jennifer Alexander, a program manager at Metropolitan Family Services, says that classroom instruction takes place in English but teacher assistants who speak children’s home languages provide translation and support as needed, she says.

To meet the new law’s requirements, the agency is asking its teacher assistants to go back to school for early-childhood teaching certificates and bilingual endorsements.

“It’s really an unfunded mandate; even if they [already] speak Spanish, they may not necessarily be certified and that’s going to be the requirement.”

The agency’s classrooms already have books that reflect students’ home languages, and the curriculum meets the needs of English language learners – but it’s entirely in English.

“Hopefully we won’t have to find a bilingual curriculum, because that would be a major challenge,” she says. Whether the primary language of instruction in the classroom changes, Alexander says, will depend on what guidance her program receives from the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services and CPS.

She says that while she agrees with the need for the new bilingual requirements, they are not feasible.

“Realistically, it’s not going to happen that fast,” she says. “The classrooms are still going to need to be manned in the process.”’

As for Abraham, he’s having trouble keeping up this year. It’s hard to know for certain why, but his mother blames the change in language.
 
“The teacher spoke Spanish, but she communicated with the children in English only,” Orozco says.

When Abraham was 3, Orozco says, she took him to Curie High School to spend two days a week working one-on-one with students in a child development class there. He learned his colors, how to read his name, and how to count to 10. Last year, in a preschool program at Edwards Center for Young Learners, he learned to write his name, recognize numbers, and even write words.

All of it, both years, happened in English, Orozco says. She says she’d have preferred for her son to continue in English this year. “It was like going back to the beginning,” she says.

Since the fall, she’s had to practice Spanish syllables and phonics with him for an hour a day. But he still has a hard time matching letters with their sounds.

“It’s time for him to be reading, but he can’t,” Orozco says.

She says she plans to switch him back to an all-English class next year.