Chicago Board Approves Plan To LimitStudent Time in Bilingual Ed. to 3 Years

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Starting next fall, Chicago schools will be expected to move most students out of bilingual education and into mainstream classes after no more than three years, under a hotly debated policy the school board approved last week.

Concerned that children are languishing in programs that are ostensibly transitional, district officials intend to crack down on schools that take too long to move students into all-English classes. The new transition policy is part of a broader plan to overhaul foreign-language instruction in the nation's third-largest school system.

"It will bring accountability to the bilingual program," said Gery J. Chico, the president of the Chicago school board. The change was needed, he said, "because of the growing numbers of students who were making a career out of bilingual education."

Several local Hispanic groups have strongly opposed the new policy, arguing that some children simply need more time in classes taught in both their native language and English. Other immigrant groups, including some representing Hispanics, supported the change.

The culturally charged debate has mirrored similar clashes around the country as states and districts re-examine how best to teach language-minority students and how quickly to move them to all-English classrooms.

Under the new policy, the 71,000 students in Chicago who are not fluent in English will be expected to stay in bilingual programs no more than three years, not counting kindergarten. Schools can keep them in such programs for a fourth year, but will have to justify such decisions based on criteria set by the district.

"The objective here is to transition children to the English-speaking programs as soon as possible," said Paul G. Vallas, the chief executive officer of the 425,000-student system.

Longer Stays Stir Concern

District officials say the crackdown is needed in part because of a trend toward longer stays in bilingual programs. For example, the proportion of elementary bilingual students who took four or more years to leave the program grew from 13 percent in 1994-95 to 22 percent in the last school year, they reported.

Moreover, district officials say, the new policy is needed to conform with 1996 revisions to Illinois' bilingual regulations.

Opponents, however, argued that the policy was unnecessary, given that more than three-quarters of Chicago students leave bilingual classes after four years. They also took the tack that bilingual programs should be held to higher standards, but more for their quality than their quickness in moving students out.

"We're all for moving a child into a mainstream class as soon as they're prepared," said Antonio Delgado, the senior education advocate at the Latino Institute, a Chicago-based research and advocacy group focusing on education, employment, and immigration. "But we're very cautious about not blaming the child or the parents."

To address program quality, district officials plan to impose tougher requirements on the city's bilingual teachers, about 60 percent of whom now hold only temporary teaching licenses.

Such teachers will now have to earn full certification in five years. And district officials say they will start enforcing a requirement that the teachers pass a basic-skills test in English. They also plan to spend about $1 million next year on professional development for bilingual instructors.

Other aspects of the board's policy call for expanding the city's two-way, English-Spanish programs; opening 12 high school career academies focusing on foreign languages; and expanding programs aimed at maintaining students' native foreign-language skills.

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