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For Illinois' Preschools, Bilingual Teachers Are In Short Supply

Illinois requires some of its publicly funded preschool programs to provide either bilingual or English as a second-language instruction to students who are ELLs, a policy it adopted four years ago and one still considered to be groundbreaking for young English-learners.

But a new survey of more than 350 of the state's preschool programs reveals a major shortage of early childhood teachers who are actually trained to deliver such instruction to young ELLs. That finding—among others—presents a difficult impediment just as Illinois' mandate to develop bilingual skills in the state's 3- and 4-year-olds is just a little over a year away from taking full effect. Beginning in 2014, teachers who work in state-funded, school-district administered preschool classrooms with 20 or more ELLs must hold certification in either bilingual instruction or ESL, in addition to the standard early childhood education credentials.

Less than six percent of the early childhood workforce actually has the training and skills necessary to work with Illinois' large—and growing—population of young English-learners. And administrators who run such programs report that there is, at best, tepid interest among early childhood teachers in becoming certified as either a bilingual instructor or an ESL teacher.

Those, and other key findings, were released today by the New Journalism on Latino Children, based at the University of California at Berkeley; the Illinois Early Learning Council; and the Chicago-based Latino Policy Forum. The survey collected information on the education and certifications of teachers who work in preschool programs funded by the Illinois State Board of Education.

Even in Latino-heavy communities, the ratios of ELL preschoolers to teachers with bilingual training is 50:1, according to the survey. Overall, Latinos make up nearly 25 percent of Illinois' public school enrollment. Their proportion is slightly higher for children in the under-5 set, where one in four is Latino and one third of those kids are English-learners. Within the more than 350 preschool programs which responded to the survey, ELLs represent more than 25 percent of the 65,000 students in those programs.

Given these figures, it seems unlikely that many programs will be able to provide the number of dually credentialed teachers they need to in time to meet the 2014 deadline and raises important questions about the viability of the Illinois approach. Is this a case where the good intentions of the policy were too far ahead of the capacity to deliver?

Syliva Puente, the executive director of the Latino Policy Forum, said during a webinar discussion of the survey findings that "it's pretty clear that we won't have enough teachers in the next 15 months, so it is an issue that needs to be addressed."

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