URBANA — Between two and four classrooms of kindergartners and first-graders will learn in both English and Spanish next year in the Urbana school district, and the school board will soon determine where those classes will be located.
The Urbana school board will make a final decision Monday on what two elementary schools will house kindergarten and first-grade dual-language classrooms. The board's special meeting is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. at the Jean F. Burkholder Administrative Service Center, 205 N. Race St., U.
Dual-language classrooms include both native English and Spanish speakers, and students are educated in both languages. The goal is to make the students bilingual. Urbana's program will expand as next year's kindergartners advance, and dual-language students will continue in the program through fifth grade.
The district will create two to four dual-language classrooms, depending on demand for the classroom space.
The school board voted at its Jan. 17 to start a dual-language program in the district at two elementary schools, and created a subcommittee to study the classes' locations.
Before the subcommittee makes its final recommendation, the district is polling teachers and parents of kindergartners at Leal, Thomas Paine and Prairie elementaries. The subcommittee has narrowed it down to those three schools.
Joe Wiemelt, the district's director of bilingual and multicultural programs, presented more information about the dual-language program to Leal's PTA on Thursday night, and parents had plenty of questions and concerns.
Daniel Bodony told Wiemelt he's concerned that he won't have any choice about whether his child is in a dual-language classroom, that English-speaking students who move away in third grade might be at a disadvantage at their new school because they've spent so much time learning in Spanish.
Wiemelt said no children will be enrolled in dual-language classes without their parents' consent, whether they're native Spanish or English speakers. He said the program is most effective when students are in it from kindergarten through the fifth grade.
Another parent expressed concern that native English speakers in dual-language classrooms might not do as well as those in all-English classrooms on third-grade Illinois Standards Achievement Tests.
Wiemelt said the district's strategic plan doesn't focus on achievement on that test in third-grade, but for students to become prepared.
"The metric used for standardized testing, it tends to be multiple choice, read and regurgitate," Wiemelt said. "It's not as important in the real world as the ability to debate (and) problem solve. ... We want to prepare our students for the future and (to be) future leaders."
Plus, Wiemelt said, research shows students who go through dual-language programs are at the same level or catch up with their peers in English-only classrooms.
"Studies are showing that the majority of students who attend dual-language programs achieve at or above grade level in comparison to their peers who are not in dual language, for both language groups," he said, "and the added benefit is that they are fluent in more than one language and are developing positive cross-cultural relationships."
After the location decision is made, Wiemelt said, he'll form a committee to study how much time students learn in English and Spanish. Some models start with 90 percent Spanish in kindergarten and work toward half Spanish instruction as students advance. Another model has students learning half in English, half in Spanish from the beginning. There are other variations, as well, Wiemelt said.
Parents also expressed hope that students in English-speaking classes at schools where dual-language classrooms exist will at least be given a little instruction in Spanish to create a common thread among classrooms. They also said they'd like a little Spanish instruction of their own, so they can help their kids with homework. They also asked for more communication from the school district about the issue, and wanted to know how to make it the best program possible.
"I'm going to work my bottom off to make sure these programs are successful and well implemented whatever school they're at," Wiemelt told them.
Leal teacher Lupe Ricconi told the Leal parents that the bilingual teachers at the school are excited about the prospect of dual language.
"We are willing to do whatever is necessary to make this happen," she said.