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50 Students, 1 Teacher: Illinois' Tough Bilingual Preschool Reality

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As the recent Chicago teacher strike has turned the national spotlight on the goings-on in the classrooms across my hometown, a new study released last week from the University of California at Berkeley offers a glimpse of the day-to-day challenges in preschool programs in Latino communities in Chicago and across Illinois.

Less than six percent of the state's early childhood education workforce has training or skills to work with its growing numbers of English Language Learners (ELLs)--a group that now constitutes nearly a third of Illinois' Latino students. The dramatically low supply of linguistically trained teachers makes resulting student-teacher ratios predictable, but no less jaw-dropping: In preschools in Latino communities, as many as 50 ELL students clamor for the attention of just one teacher with bilingual training or ESL certification.

Findings come from surveys to more than 300 administrators of preschool programs across Illinois. Twenty-seven percent of the 65,000 students represented by the survey sample were classified as ELLs. Berkeley released the study as part of the New Journalism on Latino Children project, an effort of which the Latino Policy Forum is part.

The backstory behind the survey results makes them all the more frustrating: Illinois made headlines four years ago for becoming the first state in the country to mandate bilingual preschool, recognizing the advantages of laying academic foundations for students in a language that they can understand. As a full 25 percent of Illinois children under the age of 5 is Latino, and as 1-in-3 Illinois Latino students is an English Language Learner (ELL), language is an important consideration in any preschool classroom. As such, the Latino Policy Forum joined other education advocates in supporting the mandate, in celebrating when it came to fruition--and in recognizing the challenges in putting it in to practice in fiscally austere times.

The mandate, to be fully implemented in 2014, applies to select preschool programs across the state, and calls for the teachers working with ELLs to earn certification in either Bilingual Instruction or English as a Second Language (ESL) in addition to standard Early Childhood Education credentials. While the mandate does not require additional funds to implement in our preschools, the burden in seeking additional coursework and training unfortunately and ultimately falls on teachers. It is not surprising that the Berkeley survey pointed to "time" and "money" as the biggest barriers standing between preschool teachers and much-needed certification.

Like Chicago Public School's push for a longer school day, the Illinois State Board of Education's push for bilingual preschool was done with the best of intentions, seeking to expand and enhance our ability to provide a quality education to all students. But just 15 months shy of the implementation of the celebrated bilingual mandate, the situation in our preschools echoes the same tensions that took tens of thousands of Chicago teachers into the streets last month: It is difficult to raise academic standards without providing the fiscal and professional development supports necessary to help teachers meet them. However, it is also implausible to provide these important supports when state and city coffers are running dry.

Our current economic reality is rife with catch-22s, but in lean times, research tells us that there is no better place to invest our dwindling dollars than in education -- specifically early childhood education. University of Chicago Nobel Laureate Dr. James Heckman points to a $7 return for every dollar invested in preschool. A separate Heckman study points to $48,000 in benefits to the public per child attending a half-day public school preschool for at-risk children.

As Latino and ELL students all too often fall into this at-risk category, the way forward is clear: Preschool drives students' success in school, in work, and in life -- and for Latino students and ELLs, the linguistic and cultural competency of the teacher at the helm of the classroom plays a role in their future academic success. In addition to more issue education around the benefits of bilingual education, we must ensure resources are available for current teachers to pursue additional coursework. Teacher preparation programs must take a hard look at how linguistic and cultural competency can become part of the pedagogical toolboxes of all graduates. And we must encourage diverse talent in the teaching profession: Just five percent of Illinois' teachers and administrators were Latino as of last year.

With the Chicago strike in the spotlight as an example of what can happen when things go awry in education, Illinois still has the potential to shine as an example of what can happen when things go right.