August 8, 2008

Bilingual Teaching Methods at Issue District May Lose Grant If Program Doesn’t Comply With Law

By Mick Zawislak

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Educators in Diamond Lake District 76 were filled with pride when Illinois' top school official praised them recently for academic improvement.

A few weeks later, though, the district got a different kind of feedback from the state. Officials were told to comply with the state's bilingual education program, or lose a $175,000 grant.

"My gut feeling is the state doesn't know what to do with us," Superintendent Roger Prosise said. "They sent a nice letter, but they also withheld funding."

Lawmakers and school leaders are scheduled to talk about the issue in coming weeks. At issue, local officials say, is there simply aren't enough bilingual teachers to meet the state's requirements.

For the past four years, District 76 has been in violation of the state school code because it doesn't offer bilingual education. State rules mandate if a school has 20 or more students from a particular language group, it must provide instruction in the native language.

Instead, the district practices "sheltered English" - a method in which English is the main classroom language supported by Spanish. About 53 percent of students in the three District 76 schools are Hispanic.

"I use both languages but I'm teaching in English," said Elizabeth Duffy, a bilingual first grade teacher at Fairhaven School.

At the moment, her class is studying plants. Duffy shows a picture of the item and writes the name in English on the blackboard.

"I'll say, 'Does anyone know this is Spanish?'"

"Even if they don't, I say, 'This is hierba, this is grass,'" she explained.

Prosise said he had the verbal OK from state officials to pursue the alternative technique.

"We should teach in Spanish. We teach in English," he said.

Yet, the bilingual education grants continued to roll in. Until this year.

The situation has become a Catch 22 of sorts because Hispanic students' scores on standardized tests have risen dramatically the past four years. The percentage of Hispanic students in District 76 who meet or exceed state standards in reading, for example, increased from 39 percent to 62 percent.

And for the third straight year, District 76 has the highest total scores in the state for districts with more than 40 percent Hispanic population, according to information provided to the school board.

While district officials - and parents - are happy with the increases, they agree Hispanic scores are still too low.

Yet Prosise and others are befuddled by the state's stance.

"That's really the irony to me," said Erika Lindley, executive director of ED-RED, a lobbying group whose membership includes 85 elementary school districts in Cook, Lake and DuPage counties.

Lindley said it's clear Diamond Lake students are improving, but the district is "getting hand-slapped for not doing it the way the state board wants them to do it."

Matt Vanover, a spokesman for the state board of education, says it's a matter of law.

"Nobody is saying you have to stop doing what you're doing," he said. "What we're saying is he (Prosise) has to do what the grant funding is for." That means teaching Hispanic students in their native language.

Questions surfaced after the state spent several days last year monitoring District 76 practices during a compliance review - the first in several years.

"Last year was the first year we got to Diamond Lake and found out they weren't doing what they were supposed to be doing," Vanover said. "We've been working with the district."

District 76 revised its grant application, which is under review. But Prosise is adamant that current methods work.

"We're not going to change our program to be in compliance with the state," he said. "There's a shortage of bilingual teachers, which the state recognizes."

Prosise says local districts should be able to select a program other than bilingual education, an option most states allow.

State Rep. Kathy Ryg of Vernon Hills and ED-RED also are involved in the issue.

"We need to have some flexibility," Ryg said, adding the issue has been finding qualified staff to meet the state requirement.

"It's broader than Diamond Lake," she said. "No one is doing anything wrong. Everybody's hands are tied by the (current) legislation."

Duffy, who is in her first year in District 76, says she can teach in Spanish if required but doesn't see a need.

"I hope they look at what the results are rather the process, because it's working."

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