CPS data shows unequal ratios between bilingual teachers and staff compared to students deemed “English Learners”
In Linda Perales’ special education classroom of kindergarten, first, second and third-grade students at Daniel J. Corkery Elementary in Little Village, she had students needing instruction in English and others needing instruction in Spanish.
Now an organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), Perales gets a district-wide perspective of barriers faced by students who need instruction in another language and teachers trying to provide it.
“That’s kind of stretching teachers so thin, expecting them to do multiple jobs, expecting them to find their own resources,” she said, recounting her nine years at Chicago Public Schools. “I definitely experienced that when I was in the classroom.”
Chicago Public Schools (CPS) reported 1,797 bilingual teachers and an additional 352 bilingual employees, including classroom assistants and translators, across the district as of Dec. 31, 2022. There are 72,029 students that CPS classifies as English Learners (ELs).
This means there is one bilingual CPS teacher for every 40 students. To compare, class size limits at CPS are typically capped at 25-32 students depending on the grade level.
However, data shows that bilingual educators are not equally placed across the district. According to CPS’s employee roster as of Dec. 31, 2022, 312 departments, which include mostly schools, staffed employees with “bilingual” in their job titles. This means that over half of CPS schools do not have bilingual staff according to data.
A CPS spokesperson said the bilingual teacher vacancy rate is 2.6%, less than the overall vacancy rate for teachers.
The number of ELs at a particular school determines the type of instruction a school is required to provide.
According to CPS, schools with 20 or more ELs with the same home language are required to provide Transitional Bilingual Education (TBE), which requires some subjects to be taught in the home language or in both the home language and English. TBE also includes the historical and cultural education of the United States and the native land of the student or parents. English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction is also required.
For those schools with 19 or fewer ELs that speak the same home language, a Transitional Program of Instruction (TPI) is required. The program is similar to a TBE except that these programs traditionally have fewer students, meaning staff is also limited.
Bilingual teachers are not at all schools under the TPI requirement, so consistent instruction in the student’s home language may not be possible in some schools.
“If a teacher, assistant or tutor is available who speaks the EL’s home language, the school may provide support in the home language to the extent possible,” according to CPS.
For the seven ELs at William Brown Elementary, one full-time bilingual teaching assistant is available.
For students at Gage Park High School, 117 students are in need of bilingual education according to CPS data. However, the employee roster shows one full-time equivalent for a bilingual teacher made up of two bilingual teachers that attend to these students for half of a week each.
Ratios of bilingual staff to ELs vary from school to school. Some schools have a 7:1 ratio, like William Brown Elementary. For other schools, the ratio is as high as 497 students to one bilingual educator.
To qualify as an English Learner, incoming students must complete a home language survey to determine if they should be screened for English proficiency. The screening process tests English proficiency in speaking, listening, reading and writing according to CPS. The results of these tests determine if a student should be placed in TBE or TPI, depending on the school.
State law requires that the number of ELs does not exceed 90% of the class size in a general education classroom. For instance, the average first-grade classroom at a school has 25 students. If 23 of those students were EL students, the classroom would be out of ratio. There is no state law for a school-wide bilingual educator to EL student ratio.
The CTU has a form to help teachers determine if they are in ratio. The CTU then meets with CPS representatives to find a resolution to the ratio.
Ultimately, Perales says a solution can come as early as a few weeks, though it can take longer.
Teacher Gaps Have Impacts
This academic year, Perales says incoming EL students have increased in schools on the West Side, where bilingual programs haven’t been in as high demand.
“[West Side schools] historically don’t need bilingual programs so they don’t have any bilingual teachers. They’re completely unprepared at no fault of their own to service the newcomer students that require bilingual instruction,” she said.
When there are no resources in a student’s home language, teachers must compromise.
“I’ve heard of teachers trying to use Google Translate to communicate with students that are bilingual, and teachers who may not necessarily be bilingual, scrambling to find, you know, resources and curriculum, but having to like piece things together because CPS isn’t providing those services having to translate materials on their own,” Perales said.
In some cases, she said, teachers may rely on other bilingual students in the class to translate.
“That kind of thing creates much more work and much more stress on the teacher, which impacts their ability just to provide good instruction in general because they’re stretching themselves so thin,” according to Perales.
The impacts on English Learners where bilingual instruction lacks has deeper impacts.
“I’ve heard stories from teachers and parents of just like, kids not wanting to go to school or kids crying or kids just feeling, you know, low self-esteem about themselves because they feel like they’re not smart because they don’t understand what’s happening in the classroom,” Perales said. “Even if, back in their country, they were getting good grades and understood what was happening. It’s not being reflected here.”
“We need more teachers at CPS”
“We need more teachers at CPS … bilingual Spanish education that is specifically we need teachers,” said Alex Rosen, Senior Program Manager of Teacher Residencies at CPS.
To get more bilingual teachers in classrooms, CPS’ Teacher Residency Program provides pay, full-time employment adjacent to a master’s in education program that lands residents hands-on experience, mentorship and a job at CPS at the end of the program. Residents are recruited to train in high-need subject areas such as bilingual and special education.
While residents can decide which schools they apply to and accept, Rosen says early-hiring incentives are given to schools that have more vacancies.
Schools with more vacancies and higher equity indexes kick off the hiring season for residents. They’re allowed to receive offers from these higher-need schools earlier than others, incentivizing many residents who want to get hired faster.
“They’re getting hired at a much higher rate into these schools,” he said.
CPS has also allocated “$3 million in new funding for more bilingual teachers and dual-language program coordinators, as well as the formation of bilingual advisory councils,” according to a CPS spokesperson.
Joint committees were negotiated into teacher contracts in 2019 which allow CTU members and CPS representatives to meet monthly. Perales says the committees have been discussing how to get more bilingual teachers in schools by providing tuition assistance for teachers seeking an ESL endorsement and expediting the process.
“The money is there to do it, and we know that the need for bilingual teachers is there,” she said.
Header Illustration by Yú Yú Zander