Bilingualism Spells Success in Any Language

By Williams, Kendra L. | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), February 14, 1998 | Go to article overview

Bilingualism Spells Success in Any Language


Williams, Kendra L., Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Kendra L. Williams Daily Herald Staff Writer

Teachers at Streamwood Elementary School spend six hours a day teaching a building full of kindergarteners how to read, write and speak Spanish correctly.

They spend half an hour a day teaching the pupils to speak English.

Those ratios change as the children get older and become more fluent in both languages, but the bilingual program in Elgin Area Unit District 46 - bilingual programs across the country, in fact - have come under fire in recent months. Educators and school board members have clashed as they try to decide how to best acquaint children with English.

For families with children at Streamwood, the building is a haven from the mostly English-speaking suburbs.

When she first moved here from Mexico 10 years ago, Maria Reyes of Streamwood felt helpless because she did not speak English, but felt better when her children's teachers spoke Spanish.

"When you come from Mexico, Guatemala, wherever, you understand nothing," said Reyes, who now works as a teacher's aide at Streamwood. "You feel like an animal because no one can understand you."

English vs. Spanish

But there are people, including school board member Doug Heaton, who would like to take another look at the district's bilingual program. They want to see if students could ease into entirely English-speaking classes within two or three years rather than the five to seven years most students take now.

Nearly all of the teachers at Streamwood believe a delayed transition is appropriate, assuming the children are ready. Still others - including predominately Hispanic school districts in California - believe children should begin their education in English-speaking kindergarten classes and learn by immersion.

Something Heaton said about the program during a school board meeting in December resulted in disappointment and confusion among Streamwood's staff. Citing an article he read in an education journal about English education in Puerto Rico, Heaton said, "The scary thing is, a student in Puerto Rico has a better chance of getting exposed to English than a student in U-46 (does)."

He then called for the district to re-examine its bilingual program, a suggestion the rest of the board does not appear to support.

Educating the public

The bilingual teachers at Streamwood have not forgotten his comments and wonder how much the Anglo public knows about the bilingual program.

At Streamwood Elementary School, many of the pupils' parents come from small villages in Spanish-speaking countries and have little more than a third-grade education. Most of the children live in apartments in mostly Hispanic neighborhoods and attend Spanish-speaking church services; therefore, English skills are not always reinforced at home.

Principal Lois Sands says because of those realities, people cannot look at bilingual education without examining children's living situations.

"To educate a child in a Mexican family or a Hispanic family is to teach them good manners and such, but education is (seen as) the school's responsibility," Sands said. "Many of these children come from low-income, non-stable home environments ... You can't apply what you see somewhere else to this type of population."

Parental involvement

The school's mission statement includes an emphasis on parental involvement. Many parents do get involved, not only by volunteering at school but by attending English classes and receiving their general equivalency diploma.

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