Parents and Teachers Fight for Bilingual Education

November 27, 2004

The following article was written by a member of the Committee for Educational Rights, an independent organization of teachers and parents in the Chicago area.

Illinois law mandates 3 years of transitional bilingual education which is defined as "a full-time program of instruction (1) in all those courses or subjects which a child is required by law to receive and which are required by the child's school district which shall be given in the native language of the children of limited English-speaking ability who are enrolled in the program and also in English, (2) in the reading and writing of the native language of the children of limited English-speaking ability who are enrolled in the program and in the oral comprehensive, speaking, reading and writing of English, and (3) in the history and culture of the country, territory or geographic areas which is th native land of the parents of children of limited English-speaking ability who are enrolled in the program and in the history and culture of the United State;" (105 ILCS 5/14C-1).

But parents and teachers have reported that the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) are arbitrarily and illegally denying bilingual education to thousands of students.

Our own investigation, shows for example, that at several schools in the southwest of the city, where many communities are predominantly Spanish-speakers, elementary schools often limit bilingual instruction to 1 or 2 years and also deny ESL instruction to students entitled, by law, to it. Other schools label certain classes as "bilingual" but actually all books and instruction are in English.

At one area elementary school, the bilingual program had been reduced to one year. Over 800 students who were eligible to receive ESL instruction were not receiving this assistance. A bilingual kindergarten class was eliminated, forcing students into a class where only English phonics are taught.

In the spring of 2004, teachers at this school got together and initiated a struggle for the implementation of the bilingual program as mandated by state law. There was a tremendous response from parents and the community. Parents came to public meetings and spoke out about their demands and concerns. They spoke about how they were unable to help their children with homework because it was in language they could not understand. Others spoke about how their children were denied bilingual classes, even though no adults in the home spoke English. Parents said it was discriminatory to have English only instruction in a school located in a community where Spanish is spoken in most homes. Many spoke out militantly in defense of their right to maintain their language and culture, demanding bilingual education be extended, not cut back.

As part of the struggle, a newsletter was produced to inform the community about the conditions in the school and about the actions and meetings organized by the parents and teachers. This newsletter brought to light the racist and discriminatory actions taken by the administration of the school and representatives of the CPS central office. When parents came to meetings regarding their children's education, administrators attacked the parents and blamed them for the problems at the school. When parents demanded bilingual education for their children, they were told that "when you live in America you must learn English." One parent was told that her child would not be instructed in Spanish, and if she wanted Spanish instruction, the child should go to a gang and learn it from them. Another racist reason given to deny students bilingual education was that speaking too much Spanish at home causes students to fall behind academically. The entire orientation of the CPS and various principals is that Spanish in an inferior language and English is superior, that students must be forced, "sink or swim," to learn English, and that they have no right to use their native tongue.

Our newsletter consistently showed that 1) denying bilingual education means denying students whose native language is not English the right to equality in education; and 2) the suppression of Spanish is part of the national oppression imposed on the minority peoples and immigrants by the U.S. government.

Already we have won some victories in our struggle. Over 800 students at our school are now receiving ESL instruction. Some 2nd grade classes are now allowing students to practice their Spanish writing skills. The principal has been forced to explain to staff that students cannot be exited from the bilingual program before 3 years of instruction. Funds have been provided for teachers to purchase Spanish and ESL materials for this current school year.

However, in this ongoing struggle, there is still more that must be done. The law is still being violated and parents' rights are still being denied. The bilingual program has not been completely implemented at the 2nd grade. There is no bilingual instruction past the 2nd grade. Many parents requesting bilingual education for their children are still denied.

But we are continuing the struggle. Our most important victory so far is that parents and teachers have begun to build up their own collective struggle and are asserting their rights to bilingual instruction and a genuinely modern education.