Back in the ’80s Allen Rosales could be found at the back of his preschool classroom. Not because he was in trouble, but because that is where all the non-English speaking students sat.
“The teachers were not trained. They did not know what to do with us, so they put us in the back,” said Rosales, 38, the education director at Christopher House, a social service agency that provides early childhood programs for children. “It was a pretty horrifying experience.”
Language services are already offered in grades K-12, but now the Illinois State Board of Education is working to prevent this from happening to current preschoolers with a mandate for 2014 implementation. But despite growing efforts to provide students with language assistance a learning gap persists.
The mandate requires that all early childhood teachers in bilingual classrooms be certified in bilingual instruction or receive an English as Second Language endorsement – frequently referred to as ESL. These requirements are in addition to the standard certification in Early Childhood Education.
Both the ESL endorsement and bilingual certification requires the same additional college courses; however, certified bilingual teachers are required to be tested in their target language to prove fluency.
The qualification that they need to get depends on the number of English language learners enrolled, a term educators refer to as ELL.
If a preschool has at least 20 English language learners who speak the same native language, the teacher must be certified in bilingual instruction. If there are fewer than 20 English language learners in a class or there are 20, but they speak different native languages, than the school is required to offer ESL services.
The Illinois State Board of Education reports that there are 78,607 children enrolled in the state’s Preschool for All program for the current school year. Out of that, 13,259 identified as English language learners.
Not every teacher is required to get the ESL certification. Many schools have a rotating ESL instructor that pulls students out of their regular classrooms for roughly an hour for ESL instruction and then returns them to their original classrooms for regular lessons in English, a language they are still learning.
“They [students provided ESL assistance] are missing access and understanding of content,” said Sonia Soltero, chair of the Department of Leadership, Language, and Curriculum at DePaul University.
“You get a lot more access to the content through bilingual [instruction]. You are understanding what the discussion and the content is because you are getting content in your native language,” Soltero said.
Rosales said he can relate to preschoolers that are learning English separate from their normal classroom instruction.
“When they don’t focus on the content or the academic piece, that development becomes delayed,” Rosales said.
Soltero believes this is why every teacher should at least have an ESL endorsement.
“Because imagine those students that are ELL. They get ESL services for an hour a day but they spend the rest of the five hours in the mainstream classroom with a teacher that does not know how to teach ELL students.”
According to a 2012 study done by the Institute of Human Development at the University of California and the Latino Policy Forum, “nearly 45 percent of administrators suggested there was little need for their ISBE-certified teachers to obtain ESL approval.”
The study states that many teachers believe they are already proficient linguistically and culturally, and obtaining the additional certification is time-consuming and a financial burden.
But in 2014 some of these teachers will have no choice.
“It [the bilingual mandate] is a great start, but there is a lot more to be done. At some point there has to be more professional development,” Rosales said.