By A.M. COLE/For The News-Gazette
(Editor's note: for more on this and related stories, see the C-U Citizen Access website.)
Evelin Luna carries herself with an air of confidence uncommon for a 15-year-old. She is comfortable around adults, aware of the issues concerning the local Latino community and unafraid to address the Urbana School Board in her native language.
It wasn't always so. Born in Veracruz, Mexico, Luna moved with her family to Urbana when she was 11, leaving her father behind.
"I had no English in me at all," she said. "It was pretty hard at the beginning, because I didn't even know how to say 'hi.' "
Now a freshman at Urbana High School, Luna credits the school system for programs that helped her and other Spanish-speaking students overcome language barriers in a new country.
By law, Illinois school districts must provide a bilingual curriculum if there are more than 20 students in the district who speak the same native language.
Bilingual classrooms in Champaign and Urbana are made up of mostly Latino students whose first language is Spanish. Non-native speakers are not required to enroll in the program, but the number of students who need these various linguistic resources has been slowly rising over the years.
Recently, both districts have been required to slash their budgets and rethink the way they educate their students.
Urbana was at risk of losing a cornerstone in communication when its Latino parent liaison position was on the chopping block. And in Champaign, the conversion of two elementary schools to magnet schools has parents and teachers worried about the quality of their students' education.
Champaign and Urbana schools recorded a 16 percent total increase in the number of non-native English speaking bilingual students between 2006 and 2009, according to data from the district offices.
By the numbers
In 2006, 19 percent of students in Illinois were Latino. Now, Latino students make up about 21 percent of the Illinois student population, according to the Illinois State Board of Education.
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, a project of the Pew Research Center, 1,410,000 (81 percent) of the 1,738,000 Latinos living in Illinois speak a language other than English at home – either Spanish, Portuguese or a regional dialect. Of those speaking another language at home, 706,000 speak English well, while 705,000 cannot, the center reported.
Students in bilingual programs begin their schooling in kindergarten with 80 percent of their curriculum taught in Spanish and the rest in English.
As they progress from grade to grade, the curriculum shifts to more English-dominant lessons with students learning primarily in English by fourth grade.
But anyone who has ever tried to learn another language knows that the road to language fluency is long and rocky.
"A language barrier in the United States is a severe disadvantage, especially for students," said Jorge Chapa, professor of sociology and Latino studies at the University of Illinois. "Directly, it's an impediment to learning and participation."
Helping with barriers
Lucia Maldonado came to the United States from Mexico 14 years ago and knows from firsthand experience what it's like to struggle for language fluency; it took her three years to get a good grasp on the English language. The 44-year-old is now the Latino parent liaison for the Urbana school district and serves as a bridge between non-native English speaking parents and the schools.
Serving primarily as a communicator, Maldonado holds parent-teacher conferences, notifies parents of missing immunizations and illnesses at school, and explains middle school and high school processes and transitions. She tries to close the cultural gap between schools, parents and students that can also inhibits language acquisition.
"Lots of schools expect parents to be involved," Chapa said. "If the teachers are mainly English speakers and the parents are primarily Spanish speakers, that's one big barrier between parents being involved, which is also an impediment to children's academic success."
Because Spanish-speaking parents weren't getting all the information they needed about the school system, Maldonado made it a priority to increase bilingual modes of communication.
"There's no translation system; all the information is in English (and these families), what can they do?" Maldonado said. "Parents push students to learn English quick and become bilingual. They need kids to learn English and translate."
Because children adapt to new cultures more easily than their parents, new families who come to the United States often rely on their children to help navigate institutional systems like health care and doctor's office visits, insurance plans and payment schedules, bills and school enrollment.
"The kids keep growing up with more responsibilities and so many parents struggle with their kids," Maldonado said.
Maldonado said children who grow up with these responsibilities adopt a more independent attitude, reflective of the culture of the United States. That in turn creates stress for parents who may still be trying to raise their children within the parameters of the culture of their home country.
"It's not just a language barrier but a cultural one," Maldonado said.
A doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois' Institute of Communications Research, Claudia Quintero and her family came to the United States seven years ago after she applied to several universities. Her 9-year-old son, Daniel, is a student at Leal Elementary.
"He was 3 when he came (to the United States) and we decided to send him to just English (speaking) schools," Quintero said. "We waived the bilingual program at the beginning."
But after a series of moves across Champaign, Quintero wanted her son to be fluent in his native tongue.
"We enrolled him at Dr. Howard which has no bilingual program, so at home we would read and speak Spanish," she said. "We tried to keep conversations in Spanish. Then we moved to Southwood, so he was at Robeson, which also has no bilingual program."
Finally, the family moved to Urbana and enrolled Daniel at Leal. "We didn't want him to lose Spanish," she said. "And we're satisfied with the outcome."
Quintero said the Urbana program is good but could be improved. Daniel has one class in Spanish each day that focuses on reading and writing skills; he also meets a few times a week with a teacher to practice reading in Spanish. While she would like to see equal time in both languages, on the whole, Quintero can see her son improving.
"We visit Mexico once in a while and he enjoys it," Quintero said. "He's proud of his heritage, he's proud of being a native Spanish speaker."
Some wary of future
Yet with shrinking school budgets and an upcoming reorganization of the program in Champaign, some parents and staff feel that the programs serving the districts' English Language Learners are suffering.
Araceli Salinas and her three children followed her brother to the United States from Mexico 12 years ago. Originally from Puebla, Salinas still has family in Mexico.
Her children – in first, second and fourth grades – are in the bilingual program at Booker T. Washington Elementary School in Champaign.
"The bilingual program has taught them how to speak the language, and they speak it well," she said in Spanish.
Washington is the only school in Champaign that has bilingual classrooms for all of its grades, kindergarten through fifth. It also serves 100 of the school district's 500 English Language Learners.
Students at Washington will face an additional challenge when they are relocated to a new wing at Garden Hills Elementary – now scheduled for 2011 when construction is complete.
Both Washington and Garden Hills Elementary are set to become magnet schools. Washington will focus on sciences and math while Garden Hills will focus on fine arts and language, with the students' language curriculum being Mandarin Chinese.
The relocation to Garden Hills has some parents like Salinas worried that their children will become segregated from their peers.
Ana Huerta, who has one child enrolled in Washington's bilingual program, and Salinas are concerned that the move will hinder their children's education.
Both said they fear that their children will receive a basic education in science and math but nothing more and not receive the after-school programs they do now.
Maria Alanis, director of Unit 4's Bilingual and English as a Second Language program, said meetings were held throughout the year to clear up concerns and misconceptions about the move.
"As far as communicating, we've been doing that consistently and have really made ourselves available," she said.
Others see the transfer of the program as a good thing for the students. Heckelman believes her students' English skills will improve at Garden Hills because they will have better language models.
Cheryl O'Leary, principal of Garden Hills, said she thinks the addition of the bilingual students to the current population will be positive because it will introduce general curriculum learners to another aspect of global thinking.
Despite the challenges of Champaign and Urbana's bilingual programs, parents and teachers alike share the same goal for their students – college.
"In an ideal world, I would like them all to go on to college," said Lena Sacco, third-grade bilingual teacher at Washington. But "more realistically, by the time they go to middle school I would like them to be self-sufficient. I also hope that they continue learning Spanish, I know once they get into middle school they have the option to take Spanish and I hope that they do, I'm hopeful they do because eventually they're going to start to lose it. I hope that they understand the importance of being bilingual and not see it as a bad thing, seeing it as a good thing, as a strength that they have."
For more, see cu-citizenaccess.org.