Foreign language to become a priority in Chicago Public Schools

Officials offer few specifics, but the goal is more bilingual, biliterate students

November 13, 2010

High school students (Getty Images/file)

In a move that could eventually expand dual language programs in Chicago Public Schools, the district announced Friday it plans to make learning a language a core part of its education program. 

If the new initiative takes hold, thousands of Chicago students from preschool through 12th grade could be learning math, science and writing, not just in English, but in Spanish as well—regardless of what language they speak at home.

“This is a strong vision to say that all CPS students—over time—will be bilingual and biliterate,” said Beatriz Ponce de Leon, head of the Bilingual and World Language Initiatives for CPS. “We haven’t said that before, and we haven’t focused it in that way.”
 
The district is running pilot dual language programs in four elementary schools this year. District officials could not say how many dual language programs the district will start, or where they’ll be.
 
A rethinking of the CPS’s language education programs was recommended by a commission that included the two Latino members of the Board of Education, Clare Muñana and Alberto Carrero, Jr. They said the shift is needed as Chicago moves from a “regional urban center to a first-rate global city.”
 
Ponce de Leon says programs will begin in Spanish but could grow to include additional languages.
 
Last spring, many language programs were on the chopping block during the district’s budget crisis. And prior attempts to build dual language programs in the district have lost steam. Ponce de Leon said the Board of Education is expected to consider a resolution at its December meeting that would formalize the district’s new focus on language and commitment to producing bilingual and biliterate students.
 
District officials believe the focus on language learning may also help improve academic achievement.
 
“There’s a lot of research that shows that students that are fully bilingual and biliterate do better academically, and we want to capitalize on that,” said Ponce de Leon.
 
Until now, Chicago has offered “world language programs” in 40 elementary schools, where students study Spanish, Mandarin, Arabic or other languages. In high school, students must study two years of foreign language. But those programs are not designed to make students bilingual.
 
Separately, the district provides bilingual education to thousands of students who speak a language other than English at home. Those students receive temporary instruction in their native language while improving their English.
 
Until now, the world language programs and bilingual programs have been run separately and served students with different needs. One goal of the new initiative will be to integrate the two models where possible.
 
CPS will also create “heritage language programs” in between 10 and 15 schools to help students retain or “reclaim” languages spoken in their family.