Hola: Kindergarten teacher Elvira Colmenero, a foreign language instructor in the district, with her class at Beye School, 230 N. Cuyler.TERRY DEAN/Staff

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.

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