BELVIDERE, Ill. (AP) — Taped to a wall at Seth Whitman Elementary School are more than a dozen short essays written in Spanish with wavering second-grader penmanship.
"Some of these students are native English-speakers and some of them are native Spanish-speakers," bilingual Principal Nicole Difford said, pointing to an essay.
"This is a native English-speaker, but if you look at her writing, it doesn't really look any different from" a native Spanish speaker's.
Belvidere has a large and growing Spanish-speaking population. According to census data obtained from censusreporter.org, the percentage of Spanish-speaking residents in Belvidere is nearly 10 times larger than it is in Freeport, even though the cities are about the same size. Of Belvidere's 26,100 residents, 24 percent (6,285) speak Spanish at home. Spanish-speakers account for 2.6 percent (663) of Freeport's population and 12.7 percent (19,149) of Rockford's.
Belvidere Superintendent Michael Houselog estimated that 1,200 of the district's 8,000 students are Spanish-speakers. Implementing dual-language programs in the schools is one way the district is adapting.
"That's a top priority ... being able to communicate with our clientele," he said. "It also has to be reflected in our teaching staff and our leadership staff."
The School Board recently approved title changes and a job offer that mean four of 10 district principals will be bilingual in Spanish and English by July 2016.
Half of the students in the "50-50" program are native in Spanish and half are native in English. They spend an equal amount of time learning in both languages.
Literacy lessons are taught in Spanish, and math is taught in English. Science and social studies, which use lots of Latin-based terms, are "bridge" classes in which students can use both languages and learn how they relate to one another.
In third grade, they'll switch: literacy will be taught in English and math in Spanish.
"You start with lots of visuals," said Kindergarten 50-50 teacher Rachel Anderson. "Everything has a model. I hold something up. Everything has to have a concrete object for them to connect to first."
If she holds up a pencil every time she says "lápiz," eventually the English-speaking kids learn the connection and vice versa. Anderson will become the district's director of bilingual education next school year.
The oldest 50-50 students in Belvidere are in second grade. By the time these students reach high school, teachers and administrators hope they'll not only be fluent in both languages, but attuned to both cultures, all while learning the same course material in math, science and social studies as their single-language peers.
It has been working.
The district has been tracking 50-50 students' results in Spanish, English and math exams. In February, Difford presented the testing data to the School Board. Seth Whitman 50-50 second-graders significantly outperformed their peers in the district who took the same exams.
Participation in 50-50 is voluntary, and Difford said there is a waiting list at Seth Whitman.
Lorena Campos' daughter, Kailey, a second-grader at Seth Whitman, is enrolled in 50-50.
"It's just wonderful that they can learn the two languages and grow with these two languages," Campos said. "And I know later on there will be more opportunities. ... I want her to get an early start."
Campos emigrated from Mexico when she was 10 and is bilingual in English and Spanish.
Difford said some parents are initially skeptical to enroll their children in the program.
"It's a scary experience for the parents, but once they realize that the content is the same, just the language and the instruction is different, then it becomes a little safer. Because you can still have a conversation about the planets, even if you can't read the work in Spanish (or English) and check it for them."
SOURCE: Rockford Register Star, http://bit.ly/1GcdePx
Information from: Rockford Register Star, http://www.rrstar.com
This is an Illinois Exchange story offered by the Rockford Register Star.