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District 303 aims to build linguistic bridge

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(Sandy Bressner – sbressner@shawmedia.com)
Kim Wilson teaches a third-grade bilingual class Tuesday morning at Richmond Intermediate School in St. Charles.

ST. CHARLES – Ruth Pavona loves building bridges.

For the past five years, Pavona, of Montgomery, has taught second grade to dozens of children in St. Charles School District 303.

But Pavona’s daily lessons are delivered a little differently from those taught by many of her colleagues, as the majority of her instruction – usually around 60 percent per day – is delivered in Spanish.

“We introduce new concepts in the native language so they can understand it, and then, as we move on, begin discussing it in English,” Pavona said. “We build a bridge, allowing these students to not only become bilingual but biliterate.

“For me, it’s always amazing to see these kids, at such a young age, reading and writing in two languages.”

Since being hired at District 303, Pavona has taught through the district’s developmental biliteracy program at Richmond and Davis elementary schools.

The program exists to address some of the academic challenges facing both the students for whom English is not their native language and the public schools who are held responsible by the federal and state governments for educating them, said Cindy Ruesch, District 303’s associate director of curriculum and ELL (English language learners) program director.

The program was launched in 2008 with a group of ELL kindergarten students, and since has grown to include ELL students from kindergarten through fifth grade at Davis Richmond School and Anderson Elementary School.

“Research tells us it takes about five to seven years to learn another language, to become proficient in it,” Ruesch said. “So when you have children coming into the system without knowing English, it puts them at a disadvantage.” 

Those disadvantages often can translate into achievement gaps compared to other students at the schools that can be reflected on standardized tests mandated by law, such as the Illinois Standardized Achievement Test.

At Richmond Intermediate School in 2012, 86 percent of students considered proficient in English met or exceeded government-mandated testing standards in reading; 92 percent of those students met or exceeded standards in mathematics; and 88 percent in science.

However, among students classified as having “limited English proficiency,” or LEP, only 33 percent met or exceeded standards in reading; 60 percent in math; and 45 percent in science.

The 2012 results, however, mark improvement from 2008, when only 23 percent of LEP students met or exceeded standards in reading; 49 percent in math; and only 21 percent in science.

The difficulties at Richmond are at the heart of District 303’s decision in 2011 to merge the school with Davis Elementary School. That decision sparked a lawsuit from parents.

That legal action resulted in a decision from a Kane County judge, who found that the district merged the schools in an attempt to sidestep corrective actions that would have been required by federal law for Richmond school as a result of that school’s consistent underperformance on the standardized tests.

In his decision, the judge specifically ordered District 303 to develop a corrective action plan to provide the extra help to the LEP students to raise their test scores and reduce the achievement gap, as measured by the state test.

Ruesch said the district will continue to develop its biliteracy program for LEP students at the schools in which the program is now being implemented. And she said the district also will increase an emphasis on “co-teaching” methods in other settings, partnering ELL instruction with traditional English language classroom instruction.

Ruesch said the programs already have borne results. In addition to improving ISAT scores, she pointed to the performance of primarily Spanish-speaking LEP students on the state’s ACCESS English proficiency tests.

Last year, 64.5 percent of ELL students met progress targets on ACCESS, compared to the state standard of 60.5 percent. 

And 43 percent of students had attained proficiency, as measured by ACCESS, allowing them to exit the biliteracy program, if their parents so desired, compared to a state requirement of 10 percent.

Pavona and Ruesch said they believe the program’s results derive from the commitment to teaching children in two languages at once, using instruction in other core subjects to also teach English simultaneously.

“The kiddos come to us in kindergarten having been exposed to two languages through their environment,” Pavona said. “So our goal is to make sure they can read, write, listen and speak, academically, in both languages.”

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