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Christopher Perea Ortega, an eighth grader at John Spry elementary on Chicago’s Southwest Side, loves to play guitar and the bass, especially when he is anxious.
Lately, that’s been happening a lot to deal with the stress of sitting at his computer for remote school and trying to understand his teachers in English.
Christopher’s parents only speak in Spanish to their children at home. The shy 14-year-old with a quirky sense of humor was in his school’s transitional bilingual program from kindergarten to fourth grade. He received language support to help transition from learning in Spanish to learning fully in English.
It’s been very rocky, said his mother, Nury Ortega.
“[The program] was really frustrating for us since kindergarten,” Ortega said in Spanish. “We had to make improvements in Spanish, but also in English. … We were told at school that in fourth grade, nobody will speak to him in Spanish anymore.”
Christopher hasn’t received language support in Spanish since he passed an English test before fourth grade and was deemed proficient. But Ortega said he sometimes struggles with English.
“There were concepts that he understood in Spanish very well, but in English not really,” Ortega said.
Chicago Public Schools educates nearly 67,000 students who are learning English — nearly 20% of the student population. By law, these students must receive instruction in their native language and in English. The goal is to ease them into full time English language instruction.
The school district has been criticized for not fully supporting English learners. However, before the pandemic, CPS strongly argued it’s been making improvements to better serve students who do not speak English at home.
But 72% of schools, including Spry, fell short of meeting the district’s expectations, according to an analysis by WBEZ of CPS’ own evaluations of its bilingual programs between 2017 and 2020. Schools were cited for failing to offer enough instruction in the students’ native language, a lack of bilingual teachers and materials, and for failing to properly serve students with disabilities. Nearly 400 schools with more than 20 students who are English learners were evaluated, CPS data shows.
In the last two years, 80% of schools fell significantly short in serving English learners with disabilities. Some 62% of schools were cited in multiple areas related to teacher credentials and having enough qualified bilingual staff.
And this was all before the pandemic even hit.
With remote learning, students who do not fully speak English, like Christopher, are facing greater challenges. When Christopher struggles to understand in English, it is harder to find help in Spanish right away, his mother said. Newly-identified English learners whose parents do not speak English are also struggling to keep up with online instruction, which is not always available in the student’s native language.
“There is no way you can be in compliance”
Chicago Public Schools officials defend their transitional bilingual program and list improvements they’ve made in recent years, including investing in teacher recruitment, lowering their bilingual teacher vacancy rate and adding more dual language schools.
And last winter they celebrated encouraging research from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research that showed many students who do not speak English at home are doing well academically — even better than native speakers.
This report followed 18,000 students who were just learning English and needed language support starting in kindergarten.
Most reached English proficiency by fifth grade and nearly 80% by eighth grade. CPS officials were thrilled with the news.
“These students also show better attendance, higher math scores and overall better grades than their peers who have never been classified as [English Learners], and for that we are here to celebrate,” CPS CEO Janice Jackson said at the time.
She also praised school officials for having a strong vision for bilingual education. Jackson said that should be “paired with this notion of accountability across all of our schools to ensure that our children get the education and the services that they deserve.”
One part of the district’s accountability efforts are evaluations of programs to support students learning English. CPS said it started evaluating its schools about five years ago. That’s around the time the district was in the spotlight for violating the state’s bilingual education law.
The evaluations, district officials said, are a voluntary measure to monitor and support schools. The schools are rated on the quality of instructional materials, whether they have enough licensed bilingual teachers and the quality of services in the students’ native language.
The evaluations are billed as a way to help improve the bilingual programs. But many teachers question this approach.
“There is no way you can be in compliance if you are not being given the funds to make sure the right teachers are being hired,” said Eva Corona, a bilingual teacher on the Northwest Side.
Trying to maintain a solid program is hard, she said, especially when schools do not have the training needed “to make sure your teachers have the professional capacity to teach your bilingual students.”
Funding issues and teacher shortages have been long-standing problems for the district’s bilingual program. But teachers argue giving schools a lower rating for something that is beyond their control does not make sense.
Successful bilingual programs need principal buy-in, which is not something all schools have, teachers said. Some principals refuse to offer instruction in the student’s native language out of fear that might set students back academically in English and hurt their school’s evaluation rating with CPS.
And it doesn’t help that there are no immediate consequences if a school doesn’t take steps to fix issues uncovered during its bilingual evaluation, teachers said.
Until 2018, the evaluations stated explicitly that if a school had a high number of issues or problems identified, it could have major “adverse effects” on students and could “expose CPS to an unacceptable level of risk.” That language has since been removed.
These evaluations also require a ton of paperwork and get in the way of helping students during class, many teachers said.
“English language program teachers across the city are spending so much time hunting for these [evaluation] papers,” said Nancy Serrano, an eighth grade bilingual teacher at Hernandez Middle School on the Southwest Side. “I mean, that’s what you are placing the most value in?”
Instead of more paperwork, teachers want more personalized coaching, more learning materials in Spanish or other languages, and more effective professional development during work hours.
“If teachers are bogged down with too much paperwork, and are not really in the classrooms coaching and helping strengthen instruction for our bilingual students, then compliance might be getting in its own way,” said Karen Tellez, an English learner specialist for the CPS Office of Language and Cultural Education.
Tellez was a bilingual teacher at Bateman Elementary before becoming a district administrator and knows how time consuming these evaluations can be. But Tellez said these evaluations help ensure schools are providing services in case the state audits them.
“We want to make sure we are ready if that ever happened,” she said. “And also we want to make sure that our English learners are receiving the services they are required to receive by law.”
State officials audit CPS’ bilingual program every few years, with the last audit in 2015. Without regular oversight that leads to real consequences, bilingual advocates say it’s hard to know if schools are following state and federal law related to bilingual education.
Illinois State Board of Education officials said they scheduled audits for 25 CPS schools last winter, but the COVID-19 pandemic suspended that work. They are now trying to conduct aspects of the audit electronically.
District officials said they know more is needed for the district’s English learners. The University of Chicago study also showed that 20% of students who needed language support were not reaching English proficiency by eighth grade and lagged behind academically.
“While there is a lot to celebrate in this report, it also confirms that we still have a lot of work to do,” Jackson said last winter.
CPS officials said the district’s evaluations helped identify areas that need improvement, including more native language support and more bilingual teachers. Before the pandemic, the district said it offered after-school tutoring for English learners in many schools, lowered the number of bilingual teacher vacancies to 1.9% and invested in more recruitment and training.
“We need data for the program to make a determination like … ‘Are the students receiving the services in the areas they are supposed to?’ ” said Jorge Macias, chief of language and cultural education with CPS.
“Some of it is necessary for instructional purposes, and some of it is necessary for integrity sake, that we are providing the services that we need,” he said.
Teachers said there have seen some improvements and investments, including some hammered out by the Chicago Teachers Union in its contract last year. But they said it’s not enough to serve English learners well across all schools and fix a long-standing problem of underinvestment.
English learners with disabilities, for example, have long struggled to get services.
Spry’s bilingual program is one of more than 200 schools evaluated in the last two years that fell short in the area of serving English learners with disabilities.
Bilingualism for all
In addition to improvements to its bilingual programs, the school district also said it’s doing a lot more to support bilingualism. This includes expanding the number of students earning the seal of biliteracy, a recognition given to bilingual high school graduates, and expanding dual language programs across the district. Currently 40 schools have dual language programs, many of them located in gentrifying neighborhoods.
But critics say the dual language growth could take away resources, including qualified teachers, from the kids in transitional bilingual programs.
“It seems like there is a hype in the world to be bilingual,” Serrano said. “But that hype and that interest in wanting to send your kid to a dual language is very much for the middle class, mostly white.”
With the COVID-19 crisis, the district said it’s still providing support to teachers, and evaluating other metrics like grades and attendance. But it temporarily suspended its evaluations.
This comes at a time when English learners are facing greater challenges with technology, reliable internet and connecting with their teachers.
“This year, I see that my students are struggling a lot,” Serrano said. “They are not completing work. I am calling home and finding out some of those kids are alone. Most students are not turning on their cameras or engaging in any way.”
That only raises the stakes for the future of CPS’ bilingual programs, generating new questions about how the district will embrace the English learners who struggled before the pandemic and continue to struggle now as the pandemic shows no signs of letting up.