- Associated Press - Sunday, April 16, 2017

LASALLE, Ill. (AP) - Brothers Juan and Rigoberto Guzman laughed inside a Northwest Elementary School classroom while they played with colorful paper puppets.

Juan, a first-grade student, held up a multicolored lion and smiled a gap-toothed grin, while a Spanish-language cartoon played in the background.

“The lion is a rainbow because it fell in paint,” he said to parental guffaws.

The puppet making and cartoon were part of Northwest’s first-ever Bilingual Family Fun Night.

“This is about welcoming our Spanish-speaking families to the school,” said Nicole Zellmer, an English as a Learned Language teacher.



Zellmer said about half of the school’s Spanish-speaking families attended the event.

“We’re getting to be a little bit more diverse,” said Karen Steindorf, principal for Northwest Elementary School. “Our demographics are changing.”

Northwest now has more than 100 English as a learned language students - up from 19 ELL students in 2008, and other area schools experienced similar shifts.

Over the past decade, schools around the Illinois Valley saw the percentage of students who identify as Hispanic double, triple or increase even more dramatically, according to superintendents in La Salle, Bureau and Putnam counties. This can be a challenge for districts already contending with a lack of state funding and increasing numbers of low-income students.

La Salle superintendent Brian DeBernardi said during his 17 years with the district, it has always supported services for the ELL population, but over the past five years the district reinvested efforts to expand services.

“Preschool has a bilingual staff member and another with an endorsement,” he said. “Early childhood also has staff who have the ELL endorsement. We have expanded our paraprofessional services to hire on new staff who are bilingual. I believe we have three paraprofessionals who are bilingual to accompany the one bilingual teacher.”

This staff is paid primarily with money that comes from local taxpayers.

There are grants meant to offset ELL costs, but they usually can’t be used effectively to increase the district’s personnel.

“I haven’t received $462,989.39,” DeBernardi said. “That is how much I have not received from the state for special services.”

Federal grants are drying up, and the federal money the district receives is generally not spent on staff because of a 44-percent pension tax from the state.

DeBernardi gave an example: If La Salle schools wanted to hire three teachers each salaried at $50,000, and the district received $165,000 in federal grant money, only two of those teachers’ salaries would actually be covered. That’s because after taxes each employee would cost $72,000.

“Our hands are tied as far as our use of federal funds because the state puts on a surcharge pension tax,” DeBernardi said. “That’s state-wide. That’s not just La Salle or Peru.”

So instead of the district adding staff, vacancies are filled with applicants who can address multiple needs, such as being certified to work with bilingual or special needs students.

“Preference is given to those who have a bilingual endorsement, an ELL endorsement or a special ed endorsement,” he said. “When students graduate, I tell them, ‘You are a Spanish speaker, you are an English speaker. You are an English writer, you are a Spanish writer. Don’t give that up. There’s a market for that.”

Spring Valley superintendent Jim Hermes estimated there were as few as three Hispanic students 19 years ago, when he started working for the district.

Low-income students used to account for 30 percent of the student body, now the percentage of low-income students hovers around 71 percent.

“It really has changed how we approach things,” Hermes said.

The English as a learned language program is now a “really strong” program, and staff includes a bilingual teacher’s aide, a bilingual teacher and a bilingual secretary. Free lunch and breakfast are available to low-income students.

Hermes said having a bilingual secretary was the result of luck, but it’s proven to be very helpful for the district.

“That’s really been a bonus for us - having someone bilingual answering the phone,” Hermes said.

He said communicating with parents is one of the district’s priorities, and a language barrier can make that difficult.

In the past, the district also partnered with Illinois Valley Community College to offer adult English as a second language courses, but because of a lack of funding from the state, the program didn’t happen this year. More than 20 people regularly attended the Wednesday evening sessions, Hermes said.

“That’s something I’d really love to see come back,” Hermes said.

While La Salle and Spring Valley school districts had Hispanic populations approaching 20 percent in 2006, Peru and Putnam County school districts were in the single digits.

Those numbers doubled for Peru and Putnam County.

Putnam County superintendent Carl Carlson said there was a leap from seven to 13 percent over the past three years.

“Our other demographics have stayed pretty steady,” Carlson said.

Peru schools saw a nearly identical change over the past eight years.

The percentage of minority students in Peru schools increased from 10 percent in 2008 to 25 percent this year, and superintendent Mark Cross said that’s largely driven by the share of Hispanic students increasing from 7 percent to about 15 percent. During that time, the share of low-income students increased from 28 to 44 percent.

“To me, anytime you see numbers that change to that magnitude that’s significant,” Cross said.

He said a longtime, bilingual tutor continues to meet the district’s needs. While ELL students do require more one-on-one attention, he said there have not been hires.

“It’s sometimes a challenge, but our numbers are small enough that we’ve not needed to provide any special instructor to those students,” Cross said. “Ideally, we would hire a staff member that is bilingual, but is it a hiring criteria? Not specifically.”

Another change more challenging than a language barrier is totally disconnected from heritage.

“The biggest demographic challenge that we face has nothing to do with a child’s race or socioeconomic background, it is much more the breakdown of the family,” Cross said. “This is a huge challenge that we face. I’ve always said a child’s first teacher is a parent, but we have parents that are very poorly equipped to raise children.I hope eventually the pendulum swings the other way.”

Sara Escatel, director of adult education, said even though off campus sites aren’t offering English as a second language at IVCC this year, the number of students enrolled in the class doubled for this year.

“I’m very excited because I thought we were going to lose a lot of students,” she said. “People are coming into the college even though we closed our off-campus locations. The other thing I’ve seen is interest in becoming a citizen.”

Adult education classes are not an exception and reflect this change.

Escatel said the majority of the roughly 150 students enrolling in the classes are Hispanic, and that number seems to be on the rise.

“I’m definitely seeing an increase in our Hispanic population,” she said.

Italia Ruiz of Streator, Pilar Solis of Peru and Karol Fonseca temporarily of DePue are three adult students currently learning English at IVCC.

Both Solis, who moved to Peru from Joliet five years ago, has two children in the Peru school district, and Ruiz, a one-year resident of Streator, have children in their local school districts. Both women are originally from Mexico.

Fonseca, who lives in Colombia, is studying English while visiting her family.

“I’d like to work here, but it is very complicated to get a work permit,” she said.

The women said they’ve found their communities welcoming, and Fonseca said she runs into people who speak Spanish with regularity.

Solis, who has a business in downtown La Salle, has children enrolled at both Northview and Parkside. Ruiz’s daughter is a student at Northlawn in Streator.

“My daughter learned English in six months,” Ruiz said. “I still understand more than I speak.”

Solis said she is learning English because it improves professional prospects, but it also connects her with her children, who she said speak English with their friends.

“If you try to motivate the kids, they can make better things,” Solis said. “I say to my kids, ‘If I can do it, you can do more.’”

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Source: (LaSalle) News-Tribune, https://bit.ly/2mTB2BG

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Information from: News-Tribune, https://www.newstrib.com

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