Examining potential District 97 cuts: Foreign Language

'The focus is not on teaching languages...but teaching the curriculum'

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter

By Terry Dean

Staff reporter

If Dist. 97's April 5 referendum fails, officials say drastic cuts will have to be made to close its budget deficit. Wednesday Journal has been profiling some of the programs on the reduction list leading up to the vote. This week we look at the district's FLES (Foreign Language in the Elementary School) program.

Dawn Deaton's Friday at Whittier School last week was a bit busier than usual.

Along with teaching, she had guests from another school district visiting to take a look at the District 97 foreign language program. A 12-year veteran teacher in the Oak Park school system, Deaton is Whittier's teacher leader in the program, formally known as FLES — Foreign Language in the Elementary School. The other district is considering starting their own program and had heard good things about Oak Park.

Deaton, who has taught at Whittier, 715 N. Harvey, her entire career, was a Dist. 97 parent before returning to college to become a certified teacher in the mid-1990s. That was around the time Dist. 97 piloted its FLES program at Holmes, Irving and Whittier. It went district-wide in 2001.

Before expanding to every school and prior to the pilot year, foreign language instruction was an after-school after-thought, overseen by the PTOs. Parents, though, pushed for, and achieved, integration into the district's regular curriculum. Foreign language instruction in Dist. 97, however, could be headed back to its roots next fall.

Deaton said the FLES program has been curtailed since 2001, due largely to budget cuts in the district, but it faces a potentially fatal outcome April 5, when voters go to the polls to weigh in on the district's $48 million tax rate hike proposal. All nine FLES teachers would be eliminated. Foreign languages, Deaton noted, could be taught by "core-subject" teachers, whose pedagogical plates are already packed.

Deaton and the other FLES teachers spend 30 minutes, twice a week, teaching in Spanish. But the instruction, Deaton explains, is integrated with other subjects. Certain math or science topics from other classes, for instance, are re-taught in Spanish. But that workload has been cut back over the years — they used to teach four times a week.

Deaton says she's used to her program facing reductions. But eliminating the program altogether — primarily through staffing reductions — would be a severe setback to foreign language instruction in the district, she insists.

"We've gone through this a lot but this is really cutting to the bone," Deaton said.

Each elementary school has an FLES teacher. Half of the teachers are native Spanish speakers, from Mexico and Columbia, among other countries of origin. A few teachers come from mixed heritage. In order to provide proper instruction, Deaton noted, teachers need to be fluent in Spanish.

"You have to give [students] the same foreign language environment as they get in English," she said. "In the absence of that, it would be tough to do that in the [core] classrooms if [teachers] are not native speakers."

Hiring bilingual, certified instructors isn't easy, she added, because there just aren't that many available. In its early years, the FLES program hired some non-certified instructors who were fluent in Spanish. The No Child Left Behind federal law, however, required classroom teachers to be certified. Two teachers lost their jobs in 2008 because they weren't certified. The two were working toward becoming certified by 2008, a requirement in the district's teachers contract, which ended that same year. But they didn't complete their certification by the end of the three-year deal.

Deaton said if FLES is eliminated, an alternative would be for the PTOs to take it over again, likely after school, and seek language experts to help with instruction.

Kara Morgan Short has two kids at Lincoln School, 1111 S. Grove, who are also enrolled in that school's Spanish Immersion program (which is not on the list of reductions).

Short and her husband moved to Oak Park two years ago from Washington D.C. because of the schools, and especially for the Spanish program at Lincoln. Short is also a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the Hispanic and Italian Studies Department. Research in foreign language instruction, according to Short, indicates that mastery of a secondary language is best achieved earlier in life.

Short noted that some people view foreign languages as an elective beyond the core subjects. But she maintains foreign language instruction reinforces classroom fundamentals.

"It is one of the core teaching subjects," she said. "In Oak Park, the focus is not on teaching foreign languages per se — learning numbers, the days of the week and certain words — but teaching the curriculum through languages."

This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Elvira Colmenero's name in the photo caption.

Reader Comments

38 Comments - Add Your Comment

Note: This page requires you to login with Facebook to comment.

Comment Policy


Posted: February 8th, 2011 3:36 PM

Illinois receives about 70 cents for every dollar we send to Washington. But more than $2 is sent back to New Mexico and Mississippi. A number of states freeload including Palin's Alaska. That's a practice that needs to end. Tax exempt status for religions also contributes to the tax burden. Corporations dodge their obligations with loopholes and accounting scams. The whole system of tax collection is a mess. It's no wonder most states and cities are struggling to balance their budgets.

Suzanne from Oak Park  

Posted: February 8th, 2011 2:52 PM

Vote YES in April in Oak Park. YES TO SCHOOLS! ART CLASSES are going to be cut unless you can vote YES! ART is important. Art is Oak Park.

chet21 from Oak Park  

Posted: January 30th, 2011 1:20 PM

Spanish program? Op joe, J.G. Morales, do you realize where we are coming from? OUR KIDS ARE OLDER! My well-intended critics from the ref cmte are "us" from the past!?! We have the experience that they don't yet have and so know some programs have MUCH more merit than others. Do we/I know everything? Nope. But I have the experience of raising kids in D97 - which did a great job - and "knowing" that M-C Dept and Spanish are minor programs with BIG expenses! Bravo/Cast? Big bang for the bucks!

chet21 from Oak Park  

Posted: January 30th, 2011 12:46 PM

Hey, guys, thanks for the assistance! I thought that I was in a tag-team wrestling match - and I had no partners - :-)! Anyway, the D97 deficit next year is, what, $2M? It just got cut in half by the teacher freeze. D97 also has millions in savings. Beat the ref, axe Spanish and M-C dept, add another year of freeze and problem solved! D97 employees are well paid, have guaranteed jobs and great benefits. Businesses and taxpayers of OP do not have that luxury and MANY are personally hurting. NO!

op joe  

Posted: January 30th, 2011 6:27 AM

my kids both took the spanish k-6 and received stellar grades. neither of them speak/understand a word of it by 7th and 8th grade. they hated that it was forced upon them (wanted mandarin or japanese) and were very happy when they didn't have to take it anymore. easy cut.


Posted: January 28th, 2011 1:03 PM

Haha @ Malley I had the same experience. Got to Uni & minored in Spanish. Sadly, the little Spanish my children know they learned at home. Immersion classes are great, but if they're not learning enough Spanish to use it turns out to be a waste of money. I think language (like music) is important, but I believe the bulk of the learning comes from outside of the school system. Those funds could be redirected to improving grammar, math, or science skills.

steve from op  

Posted: January 28th, 2011 12:51 AM

I think you guys are being a bit harsh on Chet. I think his point is that Spanish immersion classes would be NICE TO HAVE, but NOT having them would not be detrimental to a student's learning process or development. If parents feel so strongly about a foreign language, take private classes after school. Frankly, I think CAST & BRAVO are far more worthwhile/beneficial programs which help kids develop and explore their creativity, as opposed to being "taught" a new language

chet21 from Oak Park  

Posted: January 27th, 2011 12:09 PM

Alright, ref cmte supporters, I do NOT hate Spanish (I could care less), but question why it is presented as nirvana for our children by some of you? You have zilcho facts/data to support this and when I provide info from my D97 and OPRF experiences...you ignore it. Fine. You guys have a ref to pass and you'd be writing the same things if D97 was requesting 10x the amount. Me? I live in the real world and have to make choices. D97 can lose - they have a small annual deficit next year - NOT $6M!

steph from Oak Park  

Posted: January 27th, 2011 8:10 AM

Many kids at OPRF also take a language for four years because they ENJOY it!! It is not a requirement to take four years of a language - if the majority of kids took a language just to meet the requirements,or to get into college,the language program at OPRF would be much smaller than it currently is. I personally know students who love Spanish and have gone on to major in Spanish in college. These kids had early exposure to the language, and are also successful in other subjects! Go figure.

Jason Malley from Oak Park  

Posted: January 26th, 2011 10:58 PM

@Chet 21, the only conclusion I can draw from your complete defiance to logic and empirical data is that you hate the Spanish language. It is ok if that is the way you feel. I hated French and that is why I switched to Spanish, in college. Funny thing is, my daughter is taking French now, after switching from grade school Spanish and she is loving it...dead language that it might be. Sorry French lovers for that last comment.


Posted: January 26th, 2011 10:23 PM

That's about $50 per household per year. Less than that when we figure in funding from state taxes. Well worth it in my view.

chet21 from Oak Park  

Posted: January 26th, 2011 10:01 PM

Why do many kids at OPRF take a language for 4 years? SOLELY because it waives it for college. Anyway, if you've noticed, I have NOT questioned the Middle School Spanish program - just the elementary program. When my kids were younger the teachers found the sudden entrance of the Spanish teachers a distraction and it offered no value to what they were teaching. Perhaps this has changed, but, again, if RF kids manage just fine without it.....? But, also, $630,000? Thanks everyone for the debate!


Posted: January 26th, 2011 9:57 PM

Chet, why do you keep repeating the same canard after it has been thoroughly smashed by several posters here? No one has argued that kids cannot do well in school or get a good eduction in the absence of foreign-language instruction. The argument is that foreign-language instruction can help kids do better, AND that it has intrinsic value for participation in economic life, for some, perhaps even more value than math or science.


Posted: January 26th, 2011 9:50 PM

offered at OPRF, there are many, many students actively involved in Spanish courses. The conversation here really should be about why the Board chooses to cut successful programs that the community as a whole supports and doesn't consider other options.


Posted: January 26th, 2011 9:48 PM

Chet, I am not saying that learning Spanish will automatically make our students improve all other areas of study. However, at OPRF, Spanish is offered as Spanish 1 through Spanish 10 with accelerated and AP levels as well as Spanish literature courses. Following your logic, I assume all those courses are filled with RF students? Yes, many of our students take other languages at OPRF but possibly that's because they have enjoyed some experience with Spanish. But by the looks of the courses

chet21 from Oak Park  

Posted: January 26th, 2011 8:32 PM

My kids are grads of D97 and the youngest is now a jr at OPRF. They are top students. They had a great D97 experience-and none of it was related to Spanish. Like many of their peers they rejected it and took other languages at OPRF. You guys treat Spanish like it's the Rosetta Stone of education and will settle all AYP issues AND more. If true, then how/why do RF kids manage to succeed without Spanish being part of the elementary curriculum? Evidence from other districts supporting your opinion?


Posted: January 26th, 2011 7:19 PM

Yes, Chet, it is logically fallacious to conclude from the premise that RF students do well in school without foreign-language courses that language instruction does not improve cognitive learning. And, as others here have pointed out, learning foreign languages has intrinsic value. You may disagree, but then I guess we'll just have to decide that issue at the ballot box.

OPmom from Oak Park  

Posted: January 26th, 2011 7:03 PM

Chet, you are assuming that ALL RF kids do well (which is not true) and that ALL OP kids need more help in English and Math (again, not true). That's assuming a whole lot. Some RF students are not necessarily without problems at OPRF and I would never blame that on them NOT having language in elementary school.. Frankly I think your take on this article is off base. Should our students only be learning just core subjects and not have any art, music, language or gym?

Jason Malley from Oak Park  

Posted: January 26th, 2011 6:46 PM

@Chet 21, Dumb is also having a math teacher teach Spanish . What if that teacher does not speak Spanish? Does that mean we know have to hire polyglots who teach math and language? Yikes, that will be a challenge for sure. Sorry have to run, dinner, homework and dogs to walk. I will look for you tomorrow.

Jason Malley from Oak Park  

Posted: January 26th, 2011 6:45 PM

@Chet 21, How about this: let's look at the fees that our district pays for prescribed curricula like Everyday Math...that stuff is not cheap. And whatever the phonics program is for English. The English program that was designed around falsified research from Texas. SRA/McGraw Hill makes tons of $$$ of these programs. Not sure if you have kids who have made the leap from 5th to 6th grade, but the middle school does not use everyday math in their math program...same district, different math programs. Dumb, if you ask me.

Jason Malley from Oak Park  

Posted: January 26th, 2011 6:45 PM

@Chet 21, sorry to get a little snarky: THE RF kids do well, we have plenty of OP kids who do well too. The studies do not say that not having a second language predestines a student to mediocrity. Only that it enhances cognitive learning skills. I think there are plenty of places, within the budget and perhaps the school day to look at places to trim the fat and enhance the learning.

Jason Malley from Oak Park  

Posted: January 26th, 2011 6:44 PM

@Chet 21, socio-economic can't be set aside. It is what it is...and it can't be separated, sorry. OK, so you have read the studies, but choose to ignore them? Choose to think that improving cognitive learning does not help rich white kids so why think that it will help less fortunate students of Oak Park? Maybe Spanish is helping the kids who need more help in math and English...and if you take it away then those students perform even worse on the "test", what then? take away gym?

steph from Oak Park  

Posted: January 26th, 2011 6:42 PM

Chet, I don't recall saying that the Dist 97 students' main problem is being monolingual - you are putting words in my mouth. Of course Math and English are necessary and important to master, but I feel that you are downplaying the value of learning languages, something which I am quite passionate about. I would be very disappointed if my daughter no longer had this opportunity at her school, and therefore am willing to pay for it.

chet21 from Oak Park  

Posted: January 26th, 2011 4:26 PM

Jason, I've honestly read of the studies that you reference - but, socio-economic issues to the side - how is it then possible that the RF kids perform so darn well at OPRF (and beyond) IF they don't have the K-4 (in their case) Spanish program? If our middle to top kids don't need this program (like in RF) and our bottom kids need more help in Math and English - why are we doing this? "Studies" or not, that's why I'm comfortable with axing this surplus program AND M-C Dept. It's too much $$$!

Jason Malley  

Posted: January 26th, 2011 4:20 PM

so a couple of typos... That does not mean that all students are in that sub group and that all students need remediation in Math and English. I will get some scholarly journal articles, peer reviewed and refereed, and try and get them to you. I is smart, sometimes.;-)

Jason Malley  

Posted: January 26th, 2011 4:16 PM

@Chet21 cont2: You will find little to show that there is a disadvantage(save saving district budget money) for cognitive learning skills to learn a second language, in fact you will find many studies that show it is a distinct advantage to cognitive learning skills. Second language skills go way beyond ordering a beer. I encourage you to do some non financial research on the subject. I will get you some scholarly journal articles, peer reviewed and refereed, and try and get them to you.

Jason Malley  

Posted: January 26th, 2011 4:16 PM

@Chet21 cont: I agree that D7& has a population of students who need more Math and English, again refer to Illinois Scholl report cards. That does not mean that all students are in that sub group and that all students need to be remediation in Math and English and should be excluded from a second language opportunity. Google it to be cont. 500 characters is not enough!

Jason Malley  

Posted: January 26th, 2011 4:15 PM

@Chet 21, thanks for your reply, and having a little fun with this. The fact of the matter is that socio-economic and who your parents are have a lot to do with success in school. I bet that the majority of the RF students have one or more parents who went to college and that most have a decent income. Both significant factors in students success. While RF and OP are similar, we have very different student populations. A simple review of Illinois School report card will confirm that.


Posted: January 26th, 2011 3:29 PM

@Will... These articles are NOT being put out by D97. The WJ took this on to look at all the programs slated for elimination in the event of a failed vote. And, like any good conspiracy advocate, you won't believe that, I know. This is all just a ploy to get into your pockets. Especially after 22 years since the last operating referendum. Too bad D97 didn't get into the "every 5 years" model like other districts.

chet21 from Oak Park  

Posted: January 26th, 2011 3:15 PM

Jason, I don't drink any more since leaving college - so I guess that I'm overlooking THAT benefit, but, seriously, I will agree that knowing "something" (whether it be another language or whatever) is a good thing, but too many D97 kids are deficient in Math and English - NOT Spanish. Further, if the RF kids are doing superbly well (the other end of the academic spectrum) without Spanish....is it possible that we have misallocated D97 resources with Spanish? Math support, si - Spanish, no?


Posted: January 26th, 2011 2:39 PM

D97 has articles about each potential program cut/hostage demand in queue - sit back and watch the union publicity machine in action - it's a thing of beauty.

Jason Malley  

Posted: January 26th, 2011 2:36 PM

I have taken French and Spanish as a child and while in college...and in both languages one of the first thing you do is learn to count. As an adult i mostly need to know how to order two beers and I am good. So math and language, boom your done. No really I will try to find some articles about the benefit(despite the success of our neighbors) to second language acquisition at early ages. There are real advantages, really.

chet21 from Oak Park  

Posted: January 26th, 2011 2:17 PM

Alright, I'll admit it, I'm "sad" and you can throw in "dense." I'll go one step further in my self-criticism and wonder if I'm also "dumb" and wonder why D97 is even considering combining Math and Spanish in the classroom?!? Why? Steph, if YOU believe that the main problem with D97 kids is that they are "monolingual" - rather than deficient in Math and English, well, then we're seeing different things in the classroom! Why not include French with the Math - tri-lingual?!?

steph from Oak Park  

Posted: January 26th, 2011 1:38 PM

@chet - the only "nonsense" here is what I read in your comment! You state that students need to spend more time on Math and English. As stated in the article, core-subject teachers could end up also teaching Spanish if the FLES program is eliminated, which doesn't leave any extra time for other subjects. Doesn't it make more sense to have certified Spanish teachers teach Spanish? Obviously you are monolingual and can't appreciate the benefits of knowing a second language - how sad.

J from Oak Park  

Posted: January 26th, 2011 1:00 PM

@Steve - "without making any administrative cuts to staff at the Home Ave offices." There have been significant administrative cuts made within D97 for years, all a matter of public record and easily found in the D97 website. Secondly, the Superintendant is in the middle of his first year at D97. Firing him and having to buy out his contract is an interesting suggestion from someone concerned about wasteful spending on Administration.

chet21 from Oak Park  

Posted: January 26th, 2011 12:38 PM

And yet, somehow, the RF elementary kids manage to excel at OPRF without Spanish!?! IF there was ANY info relating OP's Spanish program with improved outcomes at OPRF (or Julian/Brooks)...then I'd reconsider. There isn't. It's just another example of "it sounds good and so we MUST have it!" Want a "fact?" D97 kids need more time with Math and English - Spanish takes time away. RF knows what it is doing - stop this nonsense! BTW, US industry hires NATIVE Spanish speakers for "global world" staff

Steve from OP from Oak Park  

Posted: January 26th, 2011 11:41 AM

District 97 is threatening to cut all of the treasured programs without making any admistrative cuts to staff at the Home Ave offices. This school district can't even maintain the outdoor fields at the school. It is crazy for them to ask for a 6.5% tax increase on all OP property tax payers. We should have the superintendant fired for mismanagement. The schoold already tax us dispropotionately to any other cook count village and yet are schools rank poorly next to other Cook county towns.

Dawn Deaton from Oak Park  

Posted: January 26th, 2011 9:50 AM

Just so the headline is not misleading, jump to the last paragraph. There is a dual goal. The focus is teaching language through curriculum and curriculum through language. Brain research shows language learning does so much more than teaching another language, though that itself is a necessary goal in our ever widening global world and in which we as a country lag behind much of the world. And the earlier the start, the better....

Facebook Connect

Answer Book 2017

To view the full print edition of the Wednesday Journal 2017 Answer Book, please click here.

Quick Links

Sign-up to get the latest news updates for Oak Park and River Forest.

MultimediaContact us
Submit Letter To The Editor
Place a Classified Ad