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Tough Times for Bilingual and Disabled Students in Illinois Schools

SPRINGFIELD–As Illinois legislators look to save money wherever they can, educators and families of bilingual students with disabilities worry that they’ll fall by the wayside.

Statewide, there are about 184,000 students designated as English Language Learners. Of those, almost 25,000 students also qualify for special education services.

“In the early 1990’s and into the early years of the 2000’s, we were just gangbusters here in Illinois in terms of things we were doing for bilingual kids with disabilities,” said Rita Brusca-Vega, associate professor at the School of Education at Purdue University Calumet.

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Today, things are drastically different. Illinois’s education budget is still in danger of being under-funded, despite Gov. Quinn’s proposed one percent increase, and educators fear that students requiring both special education and bilingual classes won’t receive the services they need.

In 1992, Illinois enacted unique laws that require bilingual students with disabilities to receive both English language learning instruction as well as any necessary special education services. They also set up a specific teacher certification for bilingual special education.

This way, students with special needs can have the resources, extra staff and supplemental instruction they require, in a language environment that will give them the tools to become fluent in English.

Those kinds of programs may now be threatened. That’s in part because of some misconceptions throughout cash-strapped school districts about what services non-English speaking students are entitled to, according to Brusca-Vega.

“There are still some administrators who don’t think students can receive [special education services] and English as a second language services at the same time,” said Brusca-Vega.

Furthermore, the restructured school funding under No Child Left Behind and the state’s budget crisis all led to the current situation that Brusca-Vega called insufficient for bilingual students with disabilities.

“On a statewide level, there’s a deep fiscal crisis that’s impacting special education,” said Rodney Estvan, education policy analyst for the Chicago-based advocacy group Access Living.

The lack of funding has led to a shortage of teachers and professionals trained in bilingual special education, and a lack of bilingual special education resources for school districts.

“It’s bad in Chicago,” said Estvan, “But for the suburbs, it’s even worse.

In suburban districts like Cicero and Berwyn, which have seen huge demographic shifts in the past couple decades, their abilities to keep up with the demand for bilingual special education have been strained.

For instance, nearly 60 percent of Cicero School District 99 students are identified as English Language Learners, so there’s an especially pressing need for bilingual English-Spanish special education teachers.

And even as Spanish language students with disabilities risk being under-served, they have a leg up over non-native English speakers of other languages, said Estvan.

According to a 2010 school census, there are 21,545 Spanish-speaking students with disabilities receiving services in Illinois. In comparison, there are only 616 Polish speaking students and 466 Arabic speaking students receiving special education services.

If you’re a Korean or Cantonese speaking student, you’re basically out of luck, said Estvan.

Part of the problem is that when non-Spanish, non-English speaking students are getting assessed to receive special education instruction and resources, they just receive a copy of English-language tests translated into their native language, said Estvan.

This is frustrating for students and their families because American English doesn’t always translate neatly into languages like Cantonese or Arabic. Cultural differences can compound translation difficulties, said Estvan.

The result is that it’s challenging for professionals to have ample personnel and resources to properly identify disabilities in some non-English speaking children, said Estvan.

“There are some Chinese families who look at their child after testing and are left saying: ‘There’s a problem with my child, and it’s not just a language issue,’” said Estvan.

The Illinois State Advisory Council on the Education of Children with Disabilities (ISAC) recommended to the Illinois State Board of Education that despite the financial difficulties facing the state, part of the state’s $2.6 billion special education funding needs to go towards the growing population of bilingual special education students.

“Having these resources is essential,” said ISAC Chair Beth Conran.

Brusca-Vega highlighted the benefit of having policy already in place to meet students’ needs, despite the funding challenges: “We do already have this really good structure,” said Brusca-Vega. “We need to look at what our rules and regulations say, and be sure to implement them.”

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