English Language Learning Is Tough When Bilingual Students Don’t See Their Teachers

Nearly 67,000 students in Chicago Public Schools are still learning English. For many, remote learning isn’t cutting it.

Bilingual
Linda Perales, a special education bilingual teacher at Corkery Elementary in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood, teaches students remotely from her home. “The biggest worry is the students and the parents who are not connecting,” she said. Photo courtesy of Sandra Rodela
Bilingual
Linda Perales, a special education bilingual teacher at Corkery Elementary in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood, teaches students remotely from her home. “The biggest worry is the students and the parents who are not connecting,” she said. Photo courtesy of Sandra Rodela

English Language Learning Is Tough When Bilingual Students Don’t See Their Teachers

Nearly 67,000 students in Chicago Public Schools are still learning English. For many, remote learning isn’t cutting it.

Beatriz Morales, who only speaks Spanish, has been trying to teach her first grade daughter how to read in English ever since schools closed and Chicago Public Schools rolled out remote learning

“My English is upside down, but I try to be there for my little girl,” Morales said in Spanish. Her two children go to Seward Elementary on the South Side and are also learning English. “We try to figure out the pronunciation together.”

When Morales needs help with pronunciation, she asks her son for guidance. He’s a third grader who also needs help with English. She pretends to be in control so her kids don’t lose confidence, but she knows they are falling behind.

Nearly 67,000 Chicago students who are learning English need a lot more support now that they are at home. This group of preschool through high schoolers is among those struggling the most since in-person class was canceled for Chicago’s 355,000 students. But as the school district makes a slow transition to remote learning, there is still a lot of uncertainty even though nearly seven weeks have passed since schools shut down.

Little direction, little material

One major problem is that bilingual teachers haven’t received a lot of direction from the school district on how to teach English learners remotely, and schools are coming up with plans as they go, said Roxana Gonzalez, an eighth grade bilingual teacher at Prieto Math and Science Elementary School on the Northwest Side.

“I am very anxious about that, because I don’t know how to take what I have done in the classroom and turn it into something I could do digitally,” Gonzalez said in an interview from her home classroom.

For many years, there has been a shortage of bilingual teachers across the state and in Chicago, and schools are feeling that especially now that communication is more difficult with students at home. At Prieto, nearly 50% of students speak limited English.

Gonzalez said she always gives her students homework instruction in English and Spanish. But not all teachers can find ways to translate their messages. At school, it was easier to coordinate support for English learners. At home, many rely on Google translate, which isn’t always accurate.

Bilingual teachers also complain the school district hasn’t offered enough resources to support instruction in the students’ primary language. Now, more than ever, they need a pool of online resources — something bilingual teachers say the district lacks.

“A lot of times the websites that are available are in English,” Linda Perales said. She is a bilingual and special education teacher at Corkery Elementary on the Southwest Side.

“That makes it difficult for our bilingual students to access it, because it’s not in their language,” she added.

Beyond school work

Corkery serves students in Little Village, a neighborhood with a large concentration of English learners. Perales said she also has even more pressing concerns.

“The biggest worry is the students and the parents who are not connecting,” she said, noting that many families don’t have internet or computers. She said many English learners are low-income, live in overcrowded homes and lack access to health care and food.

Like other bilingual teachers, Perales said she’s been doing tech support and social work, and is helping parents communicate with other teachers.

Parents who work, or want to help their kids but can’t, say they want homework support for their children. Community organizations that offered that support before in-person classes were canceled are trying to bring those services back.

“Our team has been talking to parents and asking questions: Do you need support with homework? Do you have technology at home? Is your teacher connecting with students,” said Astrid Suarez, the director of education for Enlace Chicago, an organization that provides academic support for students in Little Village.

Suarez’s team also has been addressing many other basic needs for families in the neighborhood.

They want to reach out to more parents and students, but it’s difficult because schools aren’t allowed to share information for privacy reasons.

Suarez is hoping CPS will ease those rules. Allowing community groups like Enlace to step in would help take some of the pressure off school administrators, she said, and would allow bilingual teachers to focus on what they do best.

Adriana Cardona-Maguigad covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @AdrianaCardMag.