While there are extensive efforts to provide a national framework for bilingual education in American public schools, the practice of it is more like a patchwork. Some districts have adopted complete biliteracy and dual language instruction, expecting students to master their native tongue, often with more proficiency than their parents. Other districts have become entrenched in a “complete immersion” model, sometimes including outright banning the use of native language entirely, reminiscent of the American and Canadian government’s past policy of forced Native-American “re-education.”
However, there are steps that parents and advocates can take to get a feel for their particular school’s bilingual education model. Even within the same district or neighborhood, schools offer radically different visions for bilingual education. Parents have a right to know what vision is being offered to their children; these ten questions can help.
1) “What model of bilingual education best describes what your school offers?”
This question addresses the bedrock of what your school has to offer in terms of ELL education. A school with a cohesive and functioning ELL program should be able to describe the system or model that they’re using. A few of the common ELL models are as follows: TBE (Transitional Bilingual Education) means that a school has 20 or more students speaking the same language. It also means that the school must provide native language instruction to those students, with the intent of transitioning them out of ELL education and into a monolingual general education classroom. TPI (Transitional Program of Instruction) is more appropriate for schools with fewer than 20 students speaking the same language. This means that sheltered instruction (scaffolded language support) in English should be available to those students, and they may not be receiving native language instruction. Other schools may offer a Dual Immersion model, where non ELL students are learning a new language while ELL students are learning English at the same time, Dual Language, where students are learning academic content in both languages (often by subject), or full Immersion, where ELL students are dropped into full English instruction. Your school may have a different model or a combination of models. What’s important is that they should be able to describe their system, and it should sound good to you.
2)“What are the qualifications needed to consider my students ‘bilingual’?”
This one is a basic question; schools should be able to describe their intake system with ease. District schools in Chicago should administer a Home Language Survey (HLS) to guardians. If guardians answer “yes” to either of the two questions on the HLS, the student should be administered a screener test, either the pre-IPT, the IPT, or the W-APT depending on a student’s grade level. The test administered to your student may be different, but what’s important is that some measure of your student’s English proficiency is assessed
3) “Is native language instruction provided? How much? When?
Research shows that ELL students who receive native language instruction early in their education bridge the language gap with more ease and show stronger academic performance in the long term. It is your right as a parent to know if your school has the structure, materials, and instructors in place to provide native language instruction if needed. Remember, if your school has 20 or more ELL students of the same language, they must provide native language instruction to be considered TBE (see question 1). If schools say that they do provide it, ask who will provide it. It’s possible that the classroom teacher has a section of the day portioned off for native language teaching. It’s also possible that students may have another teacher, or a teacher’s aide, specifically for this. A sign of a strong bilingual program would be if a school could provide you with the minutes or allocation by academic subject of native language instruction per day or week that ELLs receive.
4) “Can I refuse bilingual education?”
Of course you can! Schools should give you the option to opt out of bilingual education regardless of your HLS survey. They should ask you to sign a document or write a letter. They may ask for a conference. In that case, your student should not be put in a bilingual classroom, or receive native language instruction, or support.
5) “Is there, or will there, be an active BAC (Bilingual Advisory Committee) at this school?”
A school with a solid ELL program should have a functioning BAC or similar organization that offers ELL parents and community members input and outlet. The BAC should meet at least 5 times per year, and should be made up of elected members, including parents of ELLs at the school. The BAC should also be a standing committee of the LSC (Local School Council).
6) “How many students will likely be in my student’s classroom? What grade levels will be taught in their classroom?”
This is a question all parents should ask and actively monitor at their school. CPS guidelines designate 28 as a maximum number of students for grades K-2, and 31 for grades 3 and up. Language demands aside, student needs simply cannot be met in overcrowded classrooms. If you are uncomfortable with the number of students in your child’s classroom, take your concerns directly to administration and Local School Council. As for grade levels taught, sometimes schools offer a split-classroom model for ELL students. This means that a teacher could have several children from different grade levels in one classroom for the day. The reason this is done is because sometimes there aren’t enough ELL students in one grade level to make up a complete classroom. Administrators balance out classrooms by creating these splits, which, unless done with meticulous strategy and planning can be an added barrier to success in the classroom. Sometimes these split bilingual classrooms are based in students’ English language proficiency, meaning similarly proficient students are grouped together.
7) “Does this school offer bilingual education to diverse learners with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs)?
This can be a particularly challenging aspect of ELL education for schools to tackle: how can students with a myriad of learning challenges also receive bilingual minutes in addition to the mandated special education minutes to which they are entitled? If a student has an IEP, the teachers and specialists writing it should already have considered that student’s language needs. There are a number of models that can be used to service these kids. For example, an ELL student with an IEP for part-time academic pull-out services can be placed in a bilingual homeroom classroom. That way, they are still receiving ELL instruction in addition to the mandated IEP minutes. In this model, both teachers need serious collaboration and support to make sure instructional gaps are minimal. In other cases, the student may be provided with a Special Education teacher who is also certified as a bilingual teacher, which can be very hard to find from an administrative position. And finally, the student can receive push-in support from a bilingual teacher whilst in their Special Education classroom. Your school may provide a different model, or combination of models. Make sure that your school has a framework from RTI (Response to Intervention) all the way to IEP revaluations to consider the complex learning needs of ELL Diverse Learners.
8) “Who can work as a translator or bilingual liaison if needed?”
Absolutely, your school should have someone who can help parents communicate with staff if needed. During report card pickups, schools should have translators ready to help. The front office staff should have a way to communicate with families. This can be a bilingual staff member, or even a translation service via internet or phone.
9) “Are parent communications sent home in more than one language?”
Schools must always consider that advances in educational equity are founded in equitable access. If a parent can’t read a letter sent home, that is a parent excluded from the schooling process. In many Chicago schools, having letters sent home in Spanish as well as English covers much of this need. However, with more linguistically diverse populations, schools should note that the Office of Language and Cultural Education (OLCE) provides most CPS forms in several languages. Other large districts should have similar offices. Just as letters home should be linguistically accessible to parents, schools should make an effort to provide translated phone announcements to parents.
10) “Will I be allowed to visit the classroom and meet the teacher? What certifications does the teacher hold?”
The most succinct answer to this question is yes. Parents should be able to visit the classroom. This doesn’t mean whenever and however they’d like to, but access to the classroom during real time instruction should be widely available to parents. From a teacher’s point of view, this shouldn’t be seen as a “gotcha” opportunity, but rather as a scheduled, positive demonstration of what happens in that particular classroom. Teachers should use this opportunity to involve eager parents. As for teacher certification, if the teacher has a bilingual classroom, they should have appropriate endorsements. This may look different according to the kind of bilingual model, but a teacher should have an ESL, TBE, or other bilingual endorsement to be teaching a bilingual classroom.
By no accounts is this list exhaustive; meaning parents and advocates should feel free to ask whatever questions they feel are pertinent to the education of their kids. These questions serve as a starting point. With every answer you get from your school, you are likely to form more questions. When parents are informed and organized, schools feel the demand for excellence and diligence in bilingual education, a democratic and civil right.