Illinois first state to require bilingual program in public preschools

By Tara Malone
Sunday, October 3, 2010

CHICAGO - With his navy slacks and dress shirt still creased from his mother's iron, 4-year-old Edenzoe Diaz reported for his first day of preschool to learn his letters in English and Spanish.

He got his first lesson as he stepped into the classroom. Teacher Tania Miranda asked her newest student to copy the letters of his name onto an attendance sheet.

"Primero, esta letra," Miranda said, pointing to the "E'' of his name tag.

Edenzoe speaks no English, his mother said. But in this bilingual classroom at Chicago's Edwards Center for Young Learners - a public school in the shadow of Midway Airport - he will receive the same support that for years has been offered starting in kindergarten.

As the school year begins, Illinois becomes the first state to mandate that public schools with preschool programs offer a bilingual education to 3- and 4-year-olds who don't speak English.

Under the new regulations, school officials must determine whether students speak another language at home and measure how well they speak and understand English. They then must offer those who need it a seat in a bilingual preschool class, where they study basic academic skills in their native language as they learn English.

Calling preschool the new front door to the school system, education experts say the change could help to narrow the academic divide.

"If you start early, there's a very good promise that you will not have achievement-gap issues later on," said Eugene Garcia, an education professor at Arizona State University and former chair of the National Task Force for the Early Education of Hispanics. "What Illinois has done is take the lead in the state policy arena."

But from Carpentersville to Champaign, Illinois school districts are hurrying to comply with the requirements that come without additional funding, even as they brace for another year of dwindling reserves and funding delays.

"It seems as though this is just creating a problem unnecessarily," said Superintendent Roger Prosise of Diamond Lake School District 76, where nearly a quarter of the district's 1,170 students are new to English.

The mandate covers 585 preschool programs run and funded by public districts, serving about 85,000 students, state officials said. It stems from a 2009 state law that extended bilingual services to preschool. The new rules laid out what was expected.

Added certification

One of the most worrisome changes for school administrators is a requirement that by 2014, teachers in bilingual preschool classes must be certified in bilingual instruction or English as a second language in addition to early childhood education.

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