Changing Faces: McHenry County schools adapt to English-language learners

Demographic shifts over the last 14 years provide clues to what McHenry County is going to look like in the future. We should expect to be older and more diverse. How well are we situated for the gradually changing population?

This is the fourth part in our five-part Changing Faces series looking at U.S. Census and other data and an examination of how the housing industry, social services, education and local government is adjusting to changing demographics.

JOHNSBURG – Carmen Terselic jumped from her chair and mimed heading out the door.

She was trying to trigger the word "went" for third-grader Charlyn Rodriguez, one of the few vocabulary words that the girl stumbled over during the review that started her break-out session with Terselic.

Terselic started at Johnsburg District 12 in July as its first full-time, in-house English Language Learner teacher, a position created to address the growing number of students in its program.

The program only had two students, both Spanish speakers, in its ELL program during the 2011-12 school year, the last time the district submitted its number to the state.

This year, the district has 30 students, 21 of them Spanish speakers, Terselic said.

She's responsible for all but one of them, splitting her time among the district's three elementary schools and one junior high. The special education department at Johnsburg High School provides services to the one ELL student there.

Johnsburg isn't the only school district to see changes though Johnsburg's jump could have been artificially marked, Assistant Director of Student Services Fran Milewski said. The survey sent out to parents asking what language was spoken at home — the survey that triggers testing to determine whether placement in an ELL program is appropriate — wasn't very clear.

The number of students with limited English has grown nearly across the board; only three school districts that serve parts of McHenry County saw their populations as percent of total enrollment drop in the last decade.

In Harvard District 50, the number of students with limited English proficiency climbed to 26.9 percent from 14.6 percent as its white population fell to 36.9 percent of students from 54.1 percent, according to the Illinois State Board of Education.

'Bilingual, bi-literate and bi-cultural'

Dual-language programs were developed as a way to meet the needs of these students, said Gregorio Arellano, the Harvard district's bilingual and dual-language coordinator. But the side benefit is that English-language students also can take advantage of the enrichment program.

"The program comes out of the demographics changes, but it's been demonstrated to be one of the more effective models of teaching," Arellano said, adding that while there may be less of a drive in less diverse school districts to create a program, the need is still there as society becomes more multilingual and global.

Woodstock District 200 led the way for dual language programs in McHenry County more than 10 years ago with Crystal Lake-based District 47 not far behind. Harvard District 50 followed about five years later, and Carpentersville-based District 300 created its the year after that.

The Illinois Resource Center — an organization that provides educational and professional development programs to teachers — had only 19 dual-language programs listed in its directory with four of them in or covering parts of McHenry County.

While the dual-language model has been around for decades, it has grown in popularity in the last decade, said Amy Mosquera, District 47's director of dual-language and ELL programs.

It especially makes sense for the students who are now making their way through the education system, she said. Because more students are born in America and so walk into school knowing both Spanish and English to varying degrees, it was a natural switch to start teaching students how to read in both languages in kindergarten instead of starting in Spanish and then switching to English later.

"Our children are coming in as emerging bilinguals, so we are teaching them as emerging bilinguals," Mosquera said.

In Illinois, 8.2 percent of public school students are in English language learner programs, nearly double the percent of Illinois students who were born outside the states, according to 2012 U.S. Department of Education numbers and calculations by the Migration Policy Institute using U.S. Census data from the same year.

Dual-language programs also have a lot of benefits academically for students, District 200 Superintendent Mike Moan said. Studies show — especially those done in states that have implemented dual-language programs statewide — that the programs stimulate children's brains.

Studies show that children who are in dual language — both English-speaking and Spanish-speaking students — outperform their monolingual counterparts on standardized testing, though getting to that point takes time, Mosquera said, adding that dual-language participants typically begin outperforming their single-language counterparts in fifth or sixth grade.

District 47 is in the process of quantifying how successful their particular program has been, she said, adding that they do know that students are reaching English-language proficiency more quickly.

"We see the benefits of becoming bilingual, and that's what we want for our children, not just the benefits of knowing how to speak another language but the brain benefits, the bi-culturalism and becoming bi-literate," Mosquera said. "There are just more opportunities later in life."

Staffing is tough, though, Moan said.

Woodstock's program is open to all kindergartners and is only capped once the enrollment deadline passes, Moan said. The challenge comes with finding bilingual-certified teachers when sections are added and especially at the high school level where a teacher needs to certified in a particular subject and to teach bilingually.

At the high school level, District 200 offer dual language courses in biology, honors biology, world history, honors world history, global issues, international business, world views, Advanced Placement Spanish literature and culture, Advanced Placement Spanish language and culture, Mexican-American studies, and advanced Spanish conversation and phonetics.

Transitioning from social language to academic

Dual-language programs fall into that category, but so do programs where an ELL teacher pulls a student out of a classroom for one-on-one or small group instruction or programs where the teacher joins an English-language teacher in the classroom.

With either of those programs the goal is to get the student proficient enough in English that they can stay in the English-language classroom full time.

"Usually in a transitional bilingual education model, it's subtractive where we're taking away their native language," Mosquera said.

Johnsburg's Terselic aims to honor the student's culture and heritage through her teaching, and some of her students attend bilingual programs on the weekends.

"Think about a baby," she said. "They learn this basic social interaction with their mom and dad. It's not formal, academic language. That's how language happens. It starts with the social, and then we at the school build on that social. As a teacher, I build on what they have, and then I say, OK, let's scaffold and get them to build the academic [language]."

Cary's District 26 put a stronger emphasis, starting in 2007, in maximizing the amount of home language instruction students receive, especially in the early grades, said the district's program coordinator, Javier Lopez. The students transition in fourth and fifth grade with help from a language resource teachers.

A Newcomers program was developed to help students that enter the district in later years with no English language skills, he said. The program helps students adjust to the American school system and learn English.

"It has been increasingly important to be able to teach the students in their ability to bridge their home language to English [which helps them] learn English efficiently," Lopez said. "Many of our students come to our schools with varying language level abilities in both English and Spanish. Every child is different, and their instruction must be differentiated."

District 26 staff continue to evaluate the program and adapt it to meet the district's changing population, he said.

A decade ago, students classified as lacking English language proficiency made up just 3.1 percent of the district's student population, according to numbers submitted to the Illinois State Board of Education. Last school year, that number had climbed to 7.3 percent while the district's overall enrollment dropped 31 percent.

It's a similar challenge to the one District 12 is facing.

Declining enrollment has led to a drop in general state aid, but the number of students requiring special services has grown.

District 12 is in the process of requesting Title III grant that would go toward providing parents and guardians with the knowledge they need to help their child be successful, Milewski said.

Connecting school and home

Those types of services are becoming more common in McHenry County.

Woodstock District 200 has bilingual parent liaisons that provide a go-to person for parents to connect with, a position that Crystal Lake's District 47 modeled two newly created positions off, Mosquera said.

The district holds four bilingual parent advisory council meetings each year, as required by its Title III grant, she said. But this year's first meeting drew 40 families, far more than the three to five families that consistently attended last year.

The liaisons also are working with the individual schools to host additional meetings, including one focused on math and another designed more as a social, Mosquera said. A bilingual night is also in the works at the Crystal Lake Public Library.

Their goal is to teach parents about the American school system, about assessments and how to help their children succeed.

"Increased parent involvement increases the achievement of the students," Mosquera said. "It helps the parents feel more a part of the school, more a part of the community, and it just connects the family to the school."

Harvard District 50 also offers more school-based and district-based meetings, events, forums and round tables in Spanish as well as English, Arellano said.

"It's been institutionalized, not just in the teaching but in everything we do," he said.

Part 1: What's changing about the population of McHenry County and how are we adjusting to population needs?

Part 2: How have social service agencies been changing delivery models and what needs are they trying to fill?

Part 3: Is the housing market well suited for a population that's getting older?

Part 5: Are the shifts in ethnic diversity being reflected in local elected offices across McHenry County?

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