Global Classroom: Educators search for new ways to teach Illinois' increasingly diverse population

Mar 1, 2004

Students at Kreitner Elementary School in Collinsville hear two sets of morning announcements: one in English and one in Spanish.

There’s a practical reason for this. Latinos account for about half of Kreitner’s student body. Some 225 of the 425 students in that Metro East school are or have been enrolled in special classes designed to teach them English. And, on average, one new student joins those classes each week, says Jean Craft, the school district’s English as a Second Language coordinator. Students who speak Korean, Vietnamese and Russian are moving to the Collinsville area, too. 

But most of the new immigrants speak Spanish. “The trend is just increasing.” 

And so are the challenges for schools in that region. Collinsville Unit District 10 has had to explore new ways to educate this changing student body. Kreitner’s bilingual announcements, for instance, are aimed at integrating Spanish-speaking and English-speaking students. 

It’s a baby step, says Joan Friedenberg, a linguistic professor who studies bilingual education at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. While Friedenberg might give Kreitner an A for effort, she promotes a more extensive program for integrating language and culture in Illinois schools. Rather than preparing Spanish-speaking students to enter English-only classrooms, or keeping them segregated in bilingual classes, Friedenberg believes schools should be teaching all subjects to all students in both English and Spanish.

That would be a big step for Kreitner, and for the Collinsville district, which must marshal resources just to teach English to a growing number of students from immigrant families. One teacher and three aides are available to teach English to Spanish-speaking students, according to Kreitner Principal David Stroot. It’s enough for now. But the need is growing. In 2001, 5.4 percent of the district’s 5,900 students were Latino. Last year, the percentage had risen to 7.1 percent of the district’s 6,038 students. 

Collinsville isn’t alone in facing this challenge. Illinois’ immigrant population, primarily its Latino population, is growing throughout the state, putting added pressure on schools to fulfill their responsibility to educate Illinois’ increasingly diverse population. 

School officials can’t afford to ignore the math. Some schools near Chicago, as well as those in the Metro East region across from St. Louis, now serve communities where half of the residents speak Spanish. Statewide, Latinos account for about 16 percent of public school enrollment. And the number of Illinois students who need help understanding English is growing. It jumped by 95 percent in the decade between 1992 and 2002, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Those students are not all Latino, but the Illinois State Board of Education reported in 2002 that 78 percent of bilingual students speak Spanish as a first language. Most of them are in the lower grades. About 87 percent are enrolled in kindergarten through eighth grade.

But these young students and their families are increasingly emigrating to smaller communities. Though Chicago, historically a destination for immigrants, accounts for about half of the state’s total number of bilingual students, more students are enrolled in bilingual programs in that city’s suburbs — 77,995 as compared to 65,536 — according to the state board. 

Among the five counties surrounding Chicago, McHenry County, along the state’s northern border, experienced the highest growth in Latino population between 1990 and 2000. Harvard is key to that growth. Thirty-eight percent of that community’s 8,000 residents are Latino. The number of Latino students enrolled in Harvard’s schools is going up, too. Between 2001 and 2003, the student population of Harvard Unit School District 50 increased from 2,258 to 2,368, but the proportion of Latino students rose from 35 percent to 42 percent. About 400 students need bilingual training, says Sue Smith, that district’s assistant superintendent. “We have about 50 who do not speak any English.”

Three hundred miles south of Harvard, Fairmont City near East St. Louis faces a similar change. Fifty-five percent of Fairmont City’s 2,436 residents are Latino. Some of them send their children to learn English in the Collinsville district. 

Even farther south in Union County, tiny Cobden with 1,100 residents is now about 13 percent Latino. That community’s Latino students are unevenly spread between its schools. About 13 percent of the students in the high school are Latino. But about 26 percent of the students in the elementary school are. Like Harvard, Cobden, known for its apple and peach orchards, draws migrant workers. But Superintendent Dave Pierson of Cobden Unit School District 17 says that, while the migrant population has held steady, the permanent Latino population has grown. 

Harvard Assistant Superintendent Smith says this trend rings true for her district, too. Instead of moving for seasonal work in the vegetable fields or the pickle factory, migrants are finding affordable housing and settling in that small farming community known as the “Milk Capital of the World.”

Once the former migrants find jobs, they spread the word to friends and family in their hometowns, says Ernesto Felce, who teaches English as a Second Language classes to Harvard’s junior high schoolers. He says a number of the community’s Latino residents emigrated from the same area outside of Mexico City and plan to stay in Harvard as long as they have jobs.

This demographic shift in Harvard, Cobden and other communities that have traditionally drawn a mostly migratory Latino population means the schools must tackle a range of new challenges beyond serving more Latino students who need more help. Administrators and teachers also must increasingly navigate cultural differences that sometimes hinder learning and cultural tensions that can disrupt classrooms. It’s not stretching the point too far to say they must figure out how to transform the traditional schoolhouse — and sometimes the community beyond the schoolhouse. 

Educators have no choice but to try. State law requires any school that has more than 20 students who speak a first language other than English to provide an opportunity for those students to be instructed in their native language. Though Spanish is the most prevalent native language for non-English- speaking students in the Collinsville area, Kreitner’s Principal Stroot says more than 10 languages are spoken in that district alone.

While the state does provide financial help to districts, local officials say those grants often don’t cover the costs of the state-mandated programs. In Collinsville, for instance, children who need help understanding English receive about three hours of instruction a week. Last year, the state awarded that district $56,815 for its bilingual program. The cost of teachers’ salaries and materials for the program were $151,867, meaning the district had to pay the difference, according to Craft, the bilingual coordinator. The federal government awarded another $122 for each student in the program, but those dollars were designated for “concrete new things to help children not be left behind,” Craft says, not teachers’ salaries.

Harvard, with its 16 bilingual and English as a Second Language teachers, received $207,303 from the state for bilingual programs this school year, according to the state board. The federal government pitched in another $63,900, which breaks down to $122 for each of the 524 students participating in the program. The sum of these government grants doesn’t cover program costs, says that district’s Assistant Superintendent Smith.

But Brenda Holmes, Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s new deputy chief of staff for education, argues the issue isn’t funding, but inefficiency at the state level. Many state agencies, she says, offer programs for minority students that could be consolidated into one program. For example, one state agency targets rising dropout rates among Hispanic and African-American students. At the same time, the state board has its own program aimed at ensuring that students attend class. That program provides counseling, transportation, childcare, or summer school and evening classes. Latino students accounted for about 3,800, or 14 percent, of the participants, according to a board report published last year.

“All of these programs are available and should be coordinated specifically to help Hispanic students, as well as everybody else,” Holmes says. “It’s time to take a look and see how we can focus the resources we already have into programs that are actually going to work.” Meanwhile, the state requires schools to instruct Spanish-speaking students in bilingual classes until they can pass tests in reading, writing and oral skills, indicating they are ready to take classes alongside English-speaking students.

While local school officials support that ideal, some say it’s tough to accomplish. Immigrant students’ educational backgrounds sometimes hinder their grasp of the English language. “It’s hard because the schooling they come with is very low, very limited,” Harvard’s Felce says. “Their Spanish is not very good, either. And that makes it more difficult to learn English.”

And language barriers are not limited to the classroom. “Their parents don’t speak English and their parents don’t have any schooling,” Felce says.This has led Harvard school officials to reach out to students’ families. Harvard district Superintendent Randy Gross says Spanish-speaking parents often attend English as a Second Language night classes at the commu-nity college. Some Spanish-speaking residents have reached out to help immigrants adjust, too. And churches have built networks to help with such problems as filing taxes. 

Smith leads a parent group of about 25 people. The goal, she says, is to teach these adults English as fast as possible so they can participate in a society where English is the dominant language. But, she adds, preserving their culture is important. “We retain certain things so that everyone is proud of their nationality.”

In fact, state law requires school districts that have bilingual programs to encourage parental involvement through advisory committees. These committees, according to the state board, must plan and evaluate the schools’ programs. Gross says one Latino parent in Smith’s group has requested information about running for school board. “They’re beginning to understand that it’s important to get involved in the politics of schools and local government,” he says.

Part of Collinsville’s bilingual program, too, is directed at parents. 

That district helps parents make the connections necessary to obtain a social security card, say, or a driver’s license. It’s this network, Stroot says, that attracts more Latino families to the Collinsville area, making them feel comfortable enough to stay.

“You have to build up a trust network,” he says. That network includes school employees, such as teachers, nurses and social workers, as well as representatives of churches and community organizations. “Once that’s established, then the trust grows ... working with the students becomes much more effective.” Stroot says community awareness has enabled this network to expand to include financial and legal assistance.

“It’s a combination of a lot of things: Getting the word out that we’re willing to make a difference in the lives of people,” Stroot says. “It’s a sharing of whatever we’ve got that will help us go for the common good of the students.”Not everyone, though, agrees on what’s good for students. Stroot says there has been some community resistance to changes aimed at accommodating Spanish-speaking students. 

Yet community support, including financial backing, is critical to the success of these efforts, and those in Cobden and Harvard. 

That’s proven to be a high hurdle for Harvard. Local referendums to build a larger school have failed in the last three years, Superintendent Gross says. Another referendum this month will ask residents to agree to higher taxes for general education programs, some of which will help bilingual or English as a Second Language programs.

Teacher Felce says perceptions of Latino immigrants affect the outcome of these referendums. “Some of them don’t want to pay higher taxes because they say, ‘Well, that’s only for Hispanic students.’” 

The legal status of the migrant families also affects their role in the community. “Part of it is that many of our residents, meaning Hispanic residents, are not registered as citizens,” Gross says. As a result, he says, “Latino parents are seen as not caring. But that’s not the case. They do care. They do care a lot about education because they see that as an avenue to really progress in this country.”

Change here, too, is inevitable. The migrant families who establish permanent homes in Illinois are now raising American-born children. Gross says, “The ones born in America are more likely to get involved in extracurricular activities.”But Harvard and other Illinois schools are exploring ways to prepare for the future now. The dominant strategy has been to mainstream Spanish-speaking students into English-only classrooms. But some think that approach is due for an overhaul.

Friedenberg of SIU argues for redefining the mainstream. She trains teachers in two-way instruction, meaning all teachers and all students would be bilingual. Cobden bilingual teacher Mayra Taylor took some of Friedenberg’s classes. She says her district has taken small steps toward that approach. For example, the district sends notes home to parents in Spanish and English, as do many districts around the state. But the Spanish-speaking students still learn in English half of the day and Spanish the other half. 

Friedenberg cautions against this strategy. She says the students should not be separated from regular classrooms. After being introduced to the idea two years ago, however, Cobden decided that community isn’t ready for full integration, Taylor says. And not for fiscal reasons. “The support from the community is what really makes or breaks the program. I guess things just move slowly.”

But if people like Friedenberg persist, Taylor adds, then communities might eventually accept the belief that a bilingual community has its advantages. “Little by little, I think, we can create a climate that would be a right one for such a program.” And that’s the idea behind Kreitner’s bilingual morning announcements.


Illinois Issues, March 2004