WOODSTOCK – The class started – like a lot of high school courses do – with a journal question.
Students were asked to spend a few minutes jotting down the setting, characters and problems laid out in "El ahogado más hermoso del mundo," a short story written by a Colombian novelist.
The piece will introduce the fantasía, or fantasy, unit of Vistas Del Mundo I and II, courses aimed at Woodstock Consolidated Unit School District 200 freshmen and sophomores in the dual language program.
But the mixture of units aimed at different literary genres and social issues might be doing more than just improving students' Spanish.
A study conducted by the University of Arizona found that ethnic studies courses – which can include Vistas Del Mundo and the Estudios Chicanos, or Mexican-American studies, class District 200 might offer to seniors next year – increased students’ chances of graduating and passing the state's standardized tests.
The reason for the bump might be that the students in the classes – who are more likely to be Spanish-speaking or of Hispanic descent when compared to the rest of the district – are more likely to be interested in courses that explore their own history and culture.
About three-quarters of the students enrolled in Advanced Placement Spanish Literature and Advanced Placement Spanish Language at Woodstock High School are Hispanic, said Keely Krueger, the district's director of grants, language and culture.
That was one of the reasons 16-year-old Yesenia Flores said she signed up for Vistas Del Mundo II.
"I really wanted to learn more about my culture," said the Woodstock High School sophomore whose family came from Mexico, adding the class also helped round out her vocabulary.
Hispanic students are relating to the content, especially units like immigration where they bring experiences that most white students don't have to the table, said Elizabeth Gonzalez, Flores' Vistas Del Mundo II teacher.
"There's a benefit," she said. "The non-Hispanics get to learn a little bit more about the Spanish culture, and then for the Spanish speakers, too, they actually learn about more, and they relate more with the readings."
Hispanic students make up about one-third of students at District 200, according to 2013-14 numbers submitted to the Illinois Board of Education. Those students, however, are less likely to meet or exceed the state's standards for math or reading than their white, non-Hispanic counterparts.
In 2014, 69 percent of white, non-Hispanic 11th-graders met or exceeded state reading standards compared to 41 percent of Hispanics, an achievement gap of 28 percentage points, according to Illinois Report Card data. That gap was 46 percentage points in 2010.
Over the same time period, the achievement gap in the percent of 11th-graders meeting or exceeding state math standards also shrank to 32 percent from 36 percent and for science, the gap was 53 percentage points in 2010 and 36 percent in 2014.
Dual language programs are consider the most effective way of closing the achievement gap for English language learners, Krueger said. District 200 is seeing that gap close for its English language learners who participate in the dual language program by eighth grade as compared to their English-only counterparts.
The expansion of ethnic studies courses depends a lot on whether students sign up for them.
The first group of students to go through District 200's dual language program are juniors this year, Krueger said. There are only 30 students in that cohort, and the district also will be offering them a Spanish-language international business course.
Both Crystal Lake-based Community High School District 155 and Harvard Community Unit School District 50 are just getting their first groups of dual language students.
District 155 added Advanced Placement Spanish Literature and Culture, a more in-depth course on Spanish culture and literature, to its offerings, spokesman Jeff Puma said, adding other courses may join the list, but it depends on student demand.
Of the district's four feeder schools, only Crystal Lake's District 47 has a dual language program.
Students also are delving into the Spanish-speaking cultures as they move through the dual-language program, District 50 spokesman Bill Clow said.
District 50's first group of dual language students will enter high school next year, he said. Staff doesn't have any ethnic studies courses lined up for them then, but they are considering possibilities for later years.