URBANA — A committee assigned to look into the particulars of Urbana's new dual-language programs at Leal and Prairie elementary schools has some recommendations, but isn't ready to say how many classrooms it should have.
The committee expects to have either one or two kindergarten and first-grade classes at each school but didn't want to start guessing until kindergartners start enrolling and parents of English-speaking students apply for the program.
The school board has approved starting dual language, which allows for teaching native English- and Spanish-speaking students in both languages in the same classrooms.
The board charged committee members with studying the particulars of dual language and recommending how to go forward. The committee included 20 people, made up of teachers, parents, community members, professors, administrators and a school board member.
The committee did recommend that Urbana's dual-language kindergartners learn in 90 percent Spanish and 10 percent English. The curriculum will gradually transition to 50 percent English, 50 percent Spanish in fourth grade.
Joe Wiemelt, the school district's director of bilingual and multicultural programs, presented the committee's recommendation to the school board Tuesday. He said he's planning for up to four classrooms but isn't ready to say the district needs them yet.
In working with University of Illinois education Professors Georgia Garcia and Christina DeNicolo, the committee decided to recommend a model that starts kindergartners learning 90 percent of the time in Spanish. Wiemelt said research shows this model is best for ensuring bilingual, biliterate, high-achieving students.
One thing the committee discovered, said Assistant Superintendent Don Owen, was that even if English-speaking families aren't interested in the dual-language program, the district can still move ahead with a majority or even a class completely made up of Spanish-speaking students.
But school board President John Dimit expressed concern, saying the district has said all along that the dual-language program will benefit both native English and Spanish speakers.
Board member Elaine Gehrmann, who served on the dual-language committee, said members just want to emphasize that no English-speaking student will be forced into the program. Until the committee sees how many English-speaking students apply, members can't make assumptions about how many classrooms Urbana will have across the two schools.
Owen reiterated that sentiment.
"We really felt we needed hard numbers before we could finalize the real classrooms," he said. "Yes, we have projected numbers ... but until we get more info from actual (kindergarten registration) and actual information from parents, the committee didn't feel like we could say we're sure that we need three kindergarten classrooms of dual language next year."
Wiemelt said the committee recommends that if spots are open for English-speaking students, families from around the school district could go through the petition process to get into the program.
The district allows petitioning for any school, as well.
Dimit took issue. Additional petitioning, he said, could mean adding students not from the Leal and Prairie attendance areas and forcing schools to find space for students who attend those schools who aren't in dual-language classrooms.
Board secretary Ruth Ann Fisher said she still thinks the district should take another year before implementing the program.
Superintendent Preston Williams reminded the board that the dual-language program is superior to the district's current bilingual program, and that the district has dealt with petitioning in the past.
"Administratively, we're ready to go with this," Williams said. "We have to be. ... It is a best practice for our majority Spanish speakers, with the ability for majority English speakers to become part of the program."
As the committee moves forward, Wiemelt said, it will prepare to make the program happen, create procedures for how English-speakers apply to and petition into the program and host forums for parents at both schools. It will also continue work with UI professors and the Illinois Resource Center, both of which are free of charge to the district.
Wiemelt wants to take some staff members and parents to other Illinois schools that have dual-language programs, such as those in Elgin, Chicago or Beardstown.
That would be paid for with money the district already has set aside for professional development.