Blog: Latino Ed Beat

Latino Preschoolers on the Rise in Central Illinois

Lots of headlines have already been written about  the new census data showing Latino population growth in Illinois. Many, like this Daily Herald piece, focus on the growth in Chicago’s suburbs and its possible political consequences. While much of the gain is concentrated in the suburbs of Chicago–and that also has brought changes to hundreds of school districts–Illinois schools beyond the metro area are also encountering Latino students, some for the first time.

Take, for example, the tiny Mahomet-Seymour District in the middle of the state, not too far from Champaign and the University of Illinois. Mahomet-Seymour serves about 3,000 students and includes one high school, one junior high and three elementary schools, one of which, Middletown Early Childhood Center, serves only children in pre-K and kindergarten. Last week I spoke with Principal Carol Shallenberger about her school’s recent experience with Latino preschoolers.

Shallenberger says it’s only been in the past few years that  Middletown has seen an influx of non-English speakers in its student body. Though Spanish is most frequently spoken, her school has had a few speakers of Russian, Polish and Tagalog as well. This year, Middletown has eight Spanish-speakers. “Most of them are coming in speaking just Spanish. Most of them are in a pre-K, at-risk program that meets for five half-days per week. Shallenberger says this year’s Latino preschoolers were placed in two of the three pre-K classrooms to ensure a critical mass of same-language peers. Their school day is “full-immersion English. We don’t have any staff who speak Spanish fluently,” she says, though some of the teachers have labeled classroom objects in both languages and everyone who works with Spanish-speaking children tries to use as much Spanish as possible.

Communicating with families, most of whom speak little English, has been challenging for these educators. A retired high school teacher has come in to help translate forms and act as a liaison with parents. A couple of children came from Champaign’s Head Start program, and their family advocates helped with the transition and its accompanying paperwork.

Middletown’s kindergarten is half-day for all students (this is not uncommon in Illinois due to funding issues). Shallenberger says this year they have one Latino student who attends both sessions to increase his exposure to English. Though the child has two different teachers, the content is similar and the full day offers a chance to hear the same ideas repeated in English twice.

Shallenberger says it’s too early to tell how well her youngsters are faring academically–they have yet to track graduates’ progress in the early elementary grades. As she sees it on the ground, “They’re interacting with all of the kids. All the kids are interacting with them. Socially, they’re adapting, learning those routines, taking on the language.”

When a child does need extra help, the teachers call in experts to assist. “We had to bring in a bilingual speech therapist to do an assessment on a child in both native language and English,” she recalls.

In the future, Shallenberger is looking to grow her own in-house capacity, especially given Illinois’ recent decision to require any school with more than 20 English-language learners who speak the same language to offer a transitional bilingual program in that language.  The new requirements go into effect in 2014, but it’s already on her radar screen. “We’re watching our numbers carefully,” to see whether Middletown’s rising numbers of ELLs will meet the threshold. “We are expecting to see our numbers grow.” Last summer Shallenberger tried to hire a new teacher with bilingual certification–though non of the candidates who applied had it, all said they were willing to earn the credential, so the new hire will pursue it.