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More on Illinois Bilingual Pre-K and Beyond

My colleague Mary Ann Zehr has done a great job keeping tabs on Illinois' new rules for bilingual preschoolers, which require schools to screen their youngest students to determine whether they have limited English proficiency, and mandate that public schools with large numbers of bilingual pre-K students hire teachers with bilingual certification to serve them.

I thought readers might be interested in some on-the-ground context for these rules in Chicago.

Last week, I spoke with two principals whose schools serve large numbers of Latino bilingual students. One school, Chavez Elementary (my neighborhood school), uses the district's transitional bilingual program. The other, Telpochcalli, is a dual-language elementary serving Chicago's Little Village neighborhood.

Though the schools deal with language differently, they face some similar challenges. Both say only about half their entering kindergartners attend any pre-K program, even though Illinois was the first state to fund universal preschool. Telpochcalli does not offer pre-K; Chavez does, serving about 80 students (it has a waiting list), and the teachers already have bilingual certification.

Chavez Principal Barton Dassinger was comfortable with the new rules. His biggest challenge will be helping his older students meet the district's new bar to exit the bilingual program. Only 13 of his students exited last spring; under the old test-score cutoff, it would have been 60. "More students will be staying in transitional bilingual longer, or we'll need to make a big change in how we're addressing their needs," he said.

Telpochcalli Principal Tamara Witzl welcomed the new rules as an affirmation of the importance of supporting young students' home language while introducing English. "It makes no sense to be pushing English" exclusively at such a young age, especially when the program's day is less than three hours. "The bulk of that day needs to be in their home language so they can develop cognitively."

Witzl would like to see more district schools opt for full-blown dual-language programs like hers. However, Dassinger warns that in a district where transitional bilingual is the norm and schools face high mobility, it's tough to implement. Dual-language programs usually map their curriculum over time by language, making it tough on kids to shift in and out of the school. In 2009-10, Chavez had a mobility rate of 18 percent. "You can't have that many kids coming and going. It destroys the whole idea," Dassinger says.

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