When Kathy Kaufman first learned of the Dual Language Learners program being promoted about 21/2 years ago at Naperville Unit District 203 schools, she was curious.
Her son Josh was about to enter kindergarten at Beebe Elementary, and Kaufman and her husband were intrigued about the prospect of him learning side by side with primarily Spanish-speaking students.
"We knew the district was modeling their new pilot after a similar program in Schaumburg, so we investigated and sat in a class in Schaumburg," she said. "After seeing the model, we decided to enter Josh in the lottery, figuring we'd never win, but I also had apprehensions of my son being a guinea pig. At the same time, we live in a world now where knowing the language could only help him in the future."
Josh's name wasn't called, and Kaufman breathed a sigh of relief, thinking she may have dodged a bullet - until several days later when the phone rang.
"There had been a cancellation, and Josh was qualified. They wanted him in the program," she said. "But I almost threw up. I thought the decision had been made for us, so now what were we getting into?"
A little more than two years later, Josh has entered second grade and his third year in the program. Seventy percent of his daily classroom instruction is in Spanish and 30 percent in English. At home, his parents are responsible for making sure he focuses on speaking English.
Naperville Unit District 203 unveiled the Dual Language Learners program in 2008 with one kindergarten and first-grade class at both Beebe and Maplebrook elementary schools. As students advanced to the next grade level, an incoming kindergarten class was added at each location. This year, a dual-language kindergarten class was added for the first time to Mill Street Elementary School, making a total of about 270 students enrolled throughout the three schools.
In each classroom, the English-dominant students receive initial literacy in English while Spanish-dominant students receive initial literacy in Spanish.
Dual Language Coordinator Julie Knight said all other subjects are taught using Spanish.
"Our dual language students are taught using the district's curriculum that is tied directly to the Illinois learning standards," Knight said. "We're giving the same tests and covering the same curriculum. We do quite a bit of assessment to ensure that they're making progress along the way."
The trust parents have put into Knight and her staff to ensure students don't fall behind is essential. Without that trust and support at home, Knight said, the program would not be as strong.
Morgan Tyschper, mother of a Mill Street kindergartner, said earning that trust was key to enrolling her daughter Faye in the program.
"I've done my research, and I have complete faith in the curriculum and Julie, and I understand that a third-grader in the program may not be at the same level with testing, but by fifth grade will be at or above the level of their peers," Tyschper said. "In the end, all of these students will be bilingual and biliterate. So if they score lower earlier, I'm OK with that because the opportunity outweighs the scoring."
Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54 also relies on "shared ownership" among teachers, administrators and parents to bolster its dual language program, which is offered in English and Spanish at six schools and in English and Japanese at one school, director Julie Cosgrove said.
"It is absolutely paramount to making that success happen," Cosgrove said. "We have professional learning communities where we figure it out together and how we are going to move kids forward."
In District 54, where the data-driven K-8 program is going on its 16th year, both English- and Spanish-dominant students have been met or exceeded state standards, Cosgrove said.
Spanish-dominant students "do very well and perform commensurate with their English-speaking peers," she said.
"We've seen great results with our students. What we are doing is really working on implementing simultaneous biliteracy beginning in kindergarten so they have exposure to English literacy from the beginning," Cosgrove added. "They can do it. They are bright. We want to give them every opportunity to succeed." Maplebrook parent Regina Mazzini-Fernandez enrolled her daughter Sofia in the program last year as a way to keep her in touch with her Argentine heritage and the Spanish language.
She said Sofia picks up the conversational Spanish from family members but needs the "academic Spanish" she gets in school to round out her vocabulary.
"We speak English and Spanish at home, but I talk to my mother and other family members in Spanish every day. And it's important to me that Sophia be able to continue to do that as well," Mazzini-Fernandez said. "I work with Hispanic families in my professional life, and it saddens me to see the children lose their primary language as they learn English. Why can't they have both?"
Several families also appreciate the cultural diversity that lends itself to such a full-immersion program
"Sofia is learning about and has classmates from Mexico, Brazil and Chile, and she can talk about them," Mazzini-Fernandez said. "I don't think any other first-graders are getting that."
On a more localized level, Kaufman said she is more impressed with how the students have overcome any language barriers as they all strive to become bilingual and biliterate.
"They have no choice but to look to their classmates, particularly in the earlier grades, where they use signs and gestures to help each other out," Kaufman said. "When left to depend on each other, kids rally around each other to make things happen."
• Daily Herald staff writer Marco Santana contributed to this report.