Are Spanish-speaking students 'coddled?'

Latino school board president touts 'no excuses' style of learning English

  • West Chicago Community High School District 94 board President Tony Reyes supports a

    West Chicago Community High School District 94 board President Tony Reyes supports a "no excuses" approach for students who don't learn English. Ed Lee | Staff Photographer

Published: 9/2/2007 6:36 AM | Updated: 9/2/2007 8:51 AM

Nearly a half-century ago, 5-year-old Tony Reyes entered kindergarten in Hildago County, Texas, speaking only Spanish.

By the end of the first day, he and the rest of the Mexican kids had learned at least one English phrase: "Miss, may I be excused?"

It came out more like, "Miss bees cues?"

"It was like a rhyme," Reyes said. "If you didn't learn it, you wet your pants."

By the end of the semester, he was speaking English. By the end of first grade, he was fluent. By third grade, he sounded like a Texan.

Reyes, now board president of West Chicago Community High School District 94, attributes his success to Hidalgo's strict English immersion policy.

"Right across the border from Mexico, they know that you have to learn English to be successful," he said. "Fifteen hundred miles in, we don't do that. We coddle (Spanish-speaking) kids and pretend that they're stupid."

He believes that's the case even at Community High, where Latinos make up 39.7 percent of the school's population in a city that is roughly 40 percent Hispanic.

Reyes' comments come amid an ongoing national debate over how to best educate and integrate a surging Spanish-speaking population. It's a debate that finds communities such as Carpentersville pressing for English-only mandates.

Reyes is calling for changes to what is considered one of the most well-developed bilingual programs in the state.

This year, he pushed for -- and succeeded -- in adding to the program a "no excuses" approach for students who don't learn English.

Spanish-speaking teens should learn English just like other immigrants, Reyes says.

He said his attitude reflects that of other West Chicago Hispanic Americans who also were forced to learn English through immersion. Many are pulling their own children out of bilingual programs.

But several Community High teachers -- who didn't want to be named out of fear of reprisal -- said they fear this is the first step in dismantling the school's bilingual program.

Teachers union president Brad Larson says research shows English as a Second Language programs like the one at Community High are the best way to "help students learn English as quickly as possible."

A new goal

Community High developed its program during the past decade as part of a national movement to transition Spanish-speaking students to English by teaching core subjects in Spanish.

Reyes' call for change goes against the grain of some scholarly thinking.

"It appears the most powerful way to make a successful transition to English is some instruction in the home language," said Timothy Shanahan, director of University of Illinois at Chicago's Center for Literacy. "It's not a huge effect, but it matters."

Reyes said that strategy has led to Spanish-speaking students learning in their own language for too long.

District 94's new goal calls for the high school to follow the Hidalgo County model. In Reyes' eyes, that means students should be out of the bilingual program in three years or less.

"They should be spending the vast majority of the day in accelerated English programs," he said. "They should be taught by predominantly Anglo teachers."

Spanish-speaking teachers tend to rely too heavily on Spanish, and some speak with accents, so students don't learn correct pronunciation, he said.

Reyes' argument is simple: the sooner students learn English, the faster they'll improve on tests, which will increase District 94's marketability and eventually increase local property values.

Ruben Pineda, West Chicago's sole Latino alderman, agrees.

"The classes shouldn't be taught in Spanish," he said. "I think that they can learn English, and it shouldn't take four years."

Pineda, whose parents and grandparents were born here, spoke Spanish when he was young. But his family taught him the basics of English.

"I learned through being thrown into school," said Pineda, a 1978 Community High graduate who now is bilingual. "It was never a question back then. None of the classes were taught in Spanish."

High expectations

The changes Reyes seeks already seem to be in place.

District 94's new policy amounts to a formal adoption of those tougher standards.

"'No excuses' -- it sounds like a big change and a no-nonsense thing," said Janelle Stefancic, head of the world languages division.

"But we do operate that way," she added. "We've always had high expectations."

Spanish-speaking students enter Community High with various levels of English capability. In their first semester, they generally take math, science and social studies in Spanish while spending the other half of the day learning in English, Stefancic said.

By the end of their second year, all classes are in English, she said, and only some Spanish translation is offered. That extra help continues into a third or fourth year if needed.

"We don't want them to stop learning content while they're acquiring English," Stefancic said. "They'd be in school a long time."

And instructors are native English speakers, as Reyes suggests.

Three of the six teachers in the ESL program are bilingual, and none have Spanish as their primary language.

The program -- which is supported by federal funding and a $110,000 state grant -- has been showing results.

Spanish-speaking students have made steady gains in mandated tests while other students' scores stayed about the same.

And some students have flourished in the bilingual classes.

"The program has always been rigorous, and professors have always pushed students to learn the language," said Claudia Cortes, a former Community High student who graduated this summer from Elmhurst College with honors.

Cortes came to West Chicago at age 14 and went from knowing no English to speaking the language fluently in one year through bilingual classes and by sneaking into adult English classes at night.

"The program will not yield positive results without the self-motivation of each student," she said.

In an effort to provide that motivation, the school will increase after-school tutoring for bilingual students and host informational meetings for parents, officials said.

Another generation

Some Hispanics say many bilingual programs make unfair assumptions about their English-speaking abilities.

When West Chicago real estate agent Tomas Aviles Jr. was put in first-grade bilingual classes, he asked his parents to take him out.

"I didn't think I should be taught in Spanish if the objective was for me to learn English," said Aviles, who came to the U.S. at age 4 speaking only Spanish.

He was in remedial English classes until junior high. But by high school, he was student council president.

When Aviles enrolled his daughter Gabriella in a Glen Ellyn kindergarten class, he was startled to learn she had been assigned to the bilingual program. Aviles and his wife decided to home-school the girl, who speaks only English.

"She shouldn't be put in the program just because her last name is Aviles and she's brown," he said. "We purposely wanted her to learn in English because that's the language she's going to have to use the rest of her life."

In West Chicago Elementary District 33, all enrolling children are given a four-question "home language survey." If parents report that a language other than English is spoken at home, their child is given a state test, said the district's director for Second Language Learning, Angel M. Rivera, a first-generation Hispanic American whose own children took the test.

If it shows the child isn't proficient in English, the district recommends the student for the bilingual program.

"If a parent says 'No,' we have to explain what research has told us: this might impact them academically long term," Rivera said.

By the end of the first school day Thursday, Rivera had received six calls from parents who said "No."

Reyes once was one of those parents. His daughter Melinda, now 17, was automatically put in bilingual education when she was 9 and the family was living in Denver.

"Do I sound like somebody who would need a child in bilingual ed?" he said. "If we want her to learn Spanish, we'll sign her up for Spanish."

Reyes demanded that Melinda be moved to English classes.

"If you don't learn to speak English correctly," he said, "you will be looked down upon."

West Chicago Community High School's bilingual approach may have some critics, but test scores seem to indicate something is working. As the school's Latino population increases, standardized test scores have improved.

 The school's Latino population has grown steadily from 1,880 to 2,160 students over the past eight years. During that time, Hispanics grew from 30.1 percent to 39.7 percent of the student body.

 In 2004, 22.3 percent of Community High's Latino students met or exceeded "adequate yearly progress" goals for math set by the federal No Child Left Behind law. A year later, that rose to 30.4 percent, and in 2006 to 33.9 percent.

 In reading, 21.1 percent of Latinos met AYP goals in 2004. The next year 32.6 percent hit the mark, and in 2006, 43.5 percent did so.

 White students' math test scores declined over the past three years, dropping from 77 percent in 2004 to 68.4 percent in 2005 and 70 percent in 2006.

 White students' reading scores rose slightly, from an average of 71 percent in 2004 to 70 percent in 2005 and 74 percent last year.

-- Rupa Shenoy