D-428 parents seek help from committee to give their children a bilingual education

November 21, 2016 GMT

Isabell Escamilla said she has the desire to participate in a community connected by her two children and 6,200 others, but what holds her back are the words she can’t say.

Escamilla is one of more than 200 Spanish-speaking parents who have gathered to seek the guidance of DeKalb School District 428 principals, teachers and organizers to better understand their communities and the resources they provide.

The group, Bilingual Parent Advisory Committee, meets once a month to hold workshops on topics members are concerned about.

“Throughout the four years that I worked for the district, one of the greatest things that I realized was that our Hispanic and our bilingual communities … really did care,” said organizer Val Hernandez, who watched the number of bilingual students grow from 23 percent to 30 percent while she worked at District 428. “They just found themselves in a situation where they knew the language was the greatest barrier for them. Therefore, it was scary to navigate the school system.”

The Bilingual Parent Advisory Committee is partly funded by Language Instruction Programs for Limited English Proficient Students, a Federal Title III grant meant to supplement state and local bilingual education programs for students. Meals provided during workshops are donated by local restaurants.

Technology was the topic of concern Thursday at the group’s meeting spot in the Haish Memorial Library, Zimmerman Room. Parents were taught how to create Gmail accounts and access educational material for their children, who were each given Chromebooks to use for the school year as a part of District 428’s One to One program.

A broader goal the group fulfills is to give members a sense of empowerment, Hernandez said, by giving them the tools to reach out to teachers and each other.

“Our goal is for it to be strictly parent-driven with support from the school district,” Hernandez said. “So instead of the teachers planning these events, the parents would – and [they] would … feel more comfortable integrating other parents.”

Escamilla said the largest obstacle she faces is the lack of personnel within the district who can break through the language barrier.

“She would really, really love to see more involvement as far as teachers go,” Hernandez said, translating for Escamilla. “Back when her son was in first grade, she didn’t really feel that there was enough out there, and she really loved the fact that there are teachers out there that are reaching out to create a group like this to help all the bilingual families and all the Hispanic families so that language won’t be barrier anymore.”

Impasse could have lasting effect

Although funding for the Bilingual Parent Advisory Committee comes from a federal grant, the state programs it supplements have taken a hit from the budget impasse.

English language learners in Illinois increased by 16.6 percent between fiscal 2011 and 2015, but funding for bilingual education remained stagnant at $63.3 million during that time. The Illinois State Board of Education recommended an 18.8 percent increase ($75.6 million) for fiscal 2016 as a result.

A compromise reached in June that was supposed to fully fund K through 12 education left out bilingual education, among other programs – a $10.2 million omission for more than 36 school districts, including those in DeKalb County, according to a letter by VOICE Co-Chairman Matthew Seaton and coordinator Daniel Marenda.

The lack of funding could stall progress made by the more than 210,000 native-Spanish students who already often perform worse than native-English peers because of the lack of specialized language skills, according to a memorandum from Tony Smith, Illinois’ superintendent of education.

Native-Spanish students, such as 11-year-old Aiden Camacho, a sixth-grader at Huntley Middle School, might not gain access to high track courses – or might even drop out – without bilingual education programs because of the language barrier, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

“Kids in bilingual classes, they’re a little bit behind as far as how they speak in English and, like, the extent of their vocabulary,” said Catherine Camacho, Aiden’s mother, who regularly attends the Bilingual Parent Advisory Committee meetings.