Illinois becomes first state to require English learner services in preschool

Illinois recently became the first state to require preschools to offer services to English language learners. Rules approved this year by the state school board clarify what districts must do in order to help put these young students on the path to success.

Stateline Midwest, Volume 19, No. 10 - November 2010

In Illinois, the number of students who do not speak English as their first language has increased by nearly one third over 10 years.

These students, dubbed “limited English proficient” or “English language learners,” made up 8 percent of the state’s total K-12 student enrollment in the 2007-2008 school year — more than 175,000 students. The vast majority of those students speak Spanish.

Under various federal laws, states are required to provide a suitable education to these students and track their progress. And while these services are federally mandated beginning in kindergarten, some policymakers believe assistance should begin even earlier: in preschool.

Last year, a new Illinois law took effect that extended the category of “children of limited-English-speaking ability” in public schools to 3- and 4-year-olds. The law is believed to be the first of its kind in the nation.

Earlier this year, the Illinois State Board of Education issued rules for implementing this new law. The requirements were also approved by the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, a bipartisan panel of lawmakers.

Currently, school districts ask the parents of new K-12 students to fill out a survey to determine whether a language other than English is spoken at home. Districts will now be required to survey the parents of preschool-age children.

As they do with older students, districts must also screen children for their English proficiency; public preschools will be required to provide educational assistance for students identified as ELLs.

In schools with 20 or more ELLs who speak the same native language, “transitional bilingual education” must be offered. In this type of setting, students are taught academic content in their native language while they work on their English skills. Schools can opt to provide two-way immersion programs, in which students fluent in two different languages learn both languages together in the same classroom.

Requirements are less prescriptive for schools with 19 or fewer students speaking one language. The schools are required to evaluate students’ skills and offer them a transitional educational program, but don’t have to offer instruction in a native language. In this situation, school districts provide “English as a second language,” or ESL, services as needed to help students master English.

“These rules and the law were intended to make sure that children are getting as many support services as possible early on to succeed and to be ready for kindergarten,” says Mary Fergus, a spokesperson for the Illinois State Board of Education.

Training for teachers

The rules designed by the Illinois State Board of Education are also aimed at improving the quality of teachers working in programs for ELLs. By 2014, preschool teachers who work with these students must have an endorsement in bilingual education or English as a second language.

In public comments to the State Board’s proposed rules, critics raised concerns that the time commitment and cost of earning an ESL or bilingual endorsement will be a barrier for some teachers. (Fergus points out that there are local, state and federal programs and scholarships to help teachers complete the 18 credit hours needed for ESL certification.)

Another concern raised in public comments is the potential cost to public preschool programs during a time when funding is scarce.

Districts can apply for state bilingual funds to help cover the additional cost of providing services to ELLs. But the amount of funding that is available to districts each year depends on legislative appropriations, which have not been increased in recent years, Fergus says — and districts may not be fully reimbursed.

Public feedback also included questions about whether districts around the state will opt out of providing preschool programs, which would jeopardize the state’s goal of offering preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds.

States, schools differ in ELL policies

The expansion of ELL services in Illinois comes in the midst of an ongoing debate about the best way to help non-native English speakers succeed in U.S. schools.

State policymakers are divided on whether students should be immersed in English right away — or whether children are better served by integrating their mother tongue into their instruction. The decision is often made at the local level.

Most states allow districts to use both kinds of ELL programs, according to Judith Wilde, executive director of the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition.

There is only one state —Florida —in which all programs focus on literacy in two languages. There are seven (none in the Midwest) in which programs are only English-based.

Education experts have differing opinions about which programs are most effective, and the right choice for each child depends on factors such as poverty, the student’s support at home and the language most commonly spoken in the community.

“There is a move across the country in many areas to get students into what I will call ‘mainstream’ English classes as soon as possible,” Wilde says. “But that’s not always the best thing for the child.”

Wilde points to research showing that students whose test scores suggest they are ready to leave ELL courses might not actually be prepared for traditional classrooms. They might not be accustomed, for example, to less individual attention or the faster pace — and their grades can suffer.

Sharon Saez, program director for standards, assessment and accountability at the Council of Chief State School Officers, believes that a student’s native language should be nurtured along with his or her skills in English.

“If a student is able to play piano or another instrument, you don’t want to take away that gift in order to teach them something else,” she says. “You want to enhance what they came to school with, not subtract from it.”

Saez points out, too, that in some cases, students might better grasp certain concepts in their home language.

“If you are able to use whatever language a student has to really help them get [a concept], they’re more likely to succeed,” she says.