Urbana board considers dual-language classrooms

Urbana board considers dual-language classrooms

URBANA — Some students starting kindergarten and first grade this fall would be taught in both English and Spanish through the fifth grade, under a proposal the Urbana school board will consider this week.

The board may take action Tuesday on a proposal to create four dual-language classrooms, two each for kindergartners and first-graders.

The board will meet at 7:30 p.m. at the Jean F. Burkholder Administrative Service Center, 205 N. Race St., U.

Joe Wiemelt, the district's director of bilingual and multicultural programs, presented the proposal to the board last month.

Heavy attendance will require both two bilingual kindergartens and two bilingual first-grade classrooms next year, Wiemelt said, as mandated by the teachers' contract. This year's bilingual kindergarten class has 31 students, a larger number than the district anticipated, Wiemelt told the board. It anticipates 30 or more bilingual kindergartners for next school year.

He recommends turning all four classrooms into "two-way dual-language classrooms," which combine native English and Spanish speakers and teach all material in both languages. As they get older, the district would add dual-language classrooms to follow them through fifth grade.

Wiemelt presented research that shows that native English speakers become proficient in both languages when they're in dual-language classrooms, and they score "as well as or better than their English-speaking, non dual-language peers in English-only instruction on standardized tests of math and language arts in English."

Students who speak Spanish as their primary language, also called "English language learners," in dual-language classrooms were able to catch up to both their English- and Spanish-speaking peers educated in English-only classrooms.

Dual-language classrooms also promote "positive cross-cultural attitudes and behaviors," according to Wiemelt's presentation.

The classrooms could be added at Leal Elementary, which currently houses the district's bilingual classes, or two could be added at another school in the district.

The time is right, Wiemelt said, as the district is also looking at changing the elementary attendance boundaries, so the board could decide to put all four dual-language classrooms at Leal — although it would have to move some students not involved in the classes to another school to make room.

Board member Peggy Patten said she prefers the idea of creating the two new classes at another school, as it will grow the bilingual program, although she's open to input from parents, community members and staff members.

"I think our district is small enough that I think spreading out support services and staff (among Leal and another school) is a small price to pay for expanded opportunities and a chance for growth," Patten said.

She said when the district's bilingual programs were moved to Leal, the idea was always to create dual-language or immersion classes.

"It's a wonderful opportunity for families in the district," Patten said, for both Spanish- and English-speaking students. "I think many are excited about this."

It's especially important now, she said, as the district's Spanish-speaking population is now more than 10 percent

Wiemelt told the board he sees native English-speaking students ending up in those classrooms through a lottery, not a selective process. And a committee could choose the kind of dual-language program Urbana would have, whether students are taught in 50 percent English, 50 percent Spanish, or other proportions.

Wiemelt told the board he's not rushing into the idea.

"I've been planning what we're going to do with our bilingual program at Leal since my very first presentation to the board three years ago."

Board President John Dimit asked for more specifics, especially how much staff and money the program would require. Wiemelt said he will bring those specifics to Tuesday's meeting, as well as a plan for sustaining the program as the students move toward fifth grade.


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