Lip service for language learners

A week ago Friday, a group of dedicated, Spanish dominant moms from Albany Park Neighborhood Council hosted a meeting with CPS CEO Jean Claude Brizard. They politely and patiently assembled clear and concise testimony and recommendations for the district to better serve the 65,000 English language learners, 85% of whom are from Spanish-speaking homes.

The observations and questions of the moms were spot on. They shared compelling testimony and asked pointed questions. They asked why the district fails to support true bilingualism, and why CPS has not supported more World, Dual and Heritage language programs. They asked what is going on with central office leadership to guide building the multilingual assets of all children across the district.  They asked why English language learners are set up to fail in unfair systems that place too much emphasis on testing, and testing in English. They asked why their children have to lose their home language, when it destroys the ability to communicate well with elders. They asked why UNO charter schools get so much money when they have an English only curriculum (and many children from Spanish-speaking homes).

After laying out the issues, the moms made three strong recommendations: 1) rebuild and properly staff the team serving Language and Cultural Education in central office to guide districtwide policy and implementation; 2) prioritize funding to build and support more successful World, Dual and Heritage language programs; and 3) address the overwhelming number of inappropriate high stakes assessments given to ELLs in English.

I was invited to share the viewpoint of a monolingual English-speaking parent who has seen what Dual and Heritage Language programs can do for both English- and Spanish-speaking children. In my experience, such programs have the potential to build on the gifts of children and result in an academic boost to both.

What CEO Brizard said gave me cause for concern.

Brizard said he agreed with the concerns of the moms, and was a "big fan" of dual and world language programs. He said network-driven leadership and more discretionary money to principals would pave the way for more such programs. He acknowledged issues inherent to testing children in their developing vs. native language, and blamed a lack of comparative flexibility with state vs. local tests, and NCLB.

When asked pointedly about Jennifer Cheatham and Noemi Donoso, he assured the moms that they both have nearly the same vision as him. Meanwhile -- at the very same time -- CPS released news of Donoso's resignation. That Brizard did not share this with the moms was disrespectful.

Brizard acknowledged that there is currently no "Director of ELLs" that sits on his leadership team, and cited the need for this. He also mentioned a report assembled in June 2011 -- it seemed he said someone at the University of Phoenix and U-46 Elgin -- on restructuring an ELL department. He also said this department has not had a lot of "visibility."

I applaud the idea to add someone to CPS' cabinet level team that represents guidance and vision in better meeting the needs of English language learners. However, I think the focus on a "Director of ELL" is far too narrow; this role should encompass a broader multilingual agenda. Without strong and informed leadership in central office, the needs of these children across the district will not be addressed in a cohesive, thoughtful and systemic manner.

As far as insufficient "visibility," I don't understand why a freshly reorganized team would fail after 11 months on the job to scope the needs of 65,000 of their most "at risk" students. If there is no "visibility" here, it can only be because leadership is simply not looking.

As well, the aforementioned consultants engaged by CPS to consult on reorganization in this area are not the thought leaders that should have been brought to the table. Because I am a "big fan" of multilingual programs, I can name dozens of other outside experts I would tap first as consultants -- David Rogers from New Mexico, Eugene Garcia from Arizona, Kathleen Lindholm Leary, Sonia Nieto, Fred Genesee, Nancy Commins -- not to mention the plethora of local resources that are nationally renowned in this area, including the Illinois Resource Center, DePaul University's Sonia Soltero, NIU's Maria Korkatsch and MT Garreton, etc.

Brizard cited funding woes to explain lack of investment in language programs. But dual and heritage language programs are extremely cost efficient with proper training, planning and oversight. Evanstown township did the math on this -- I'm sure they'd be happy to share with CPS.

Frankly, in the much-lauded reorganization of the leadership team, the new CPS has left every child whose home language is not English behind. The former Office of Language and Cultural Education was decimated and demoted in importance. Positions were cut, and there has not been a permanent Director in this vital area since the reorg.

No one with key subject matter expertise in multilingual, multicultural education has any access to making district wide decisions, with perhaps the sole exception being unpaid board member Jesse Ruiz, former ISBE Board President. Let's be fair and say this is not his day job.

To delay a multilingual agenda until getting the lay of the land might be shortsighted, but perhaps forgivable in the first year of an administration where no one on the leadership team has any subject matter expertise in the area. But to kick the can down the road on the needs of English language learners throughout the district for an entire year -- or more -- is unconscionable in such a large and linguistically diverse public school district.

Multilingual education is a win win. It improves academic outcomes for children from non-English speaking homes, and children from English-speaking homes. It is a cost effective way to build a global workforce which can ensure Chicago's place on the world stage. But we need strong central leadership to prioritize funding and guide successful rollout and implementation. Punting these decisions to the area networks and principals will result in disparate programs and policy that lack cohesion, efficacy and sustainability.

What will it take for CPS to set aside its hubris, bring real subject matter experts to the table and invest in planning a long term multilingual agenda? How many moms have to beg to have how many meetings to be told not much of anything before this dire need is addressed in a thoughtful and just and successful manner?

I remain, as always, optimistic.