Elementary educators are in universal agreement about the importance of parental involvement in a child’s education. But, for obvious reasons, it can be difficult for a non-English speaking parent to sufficiently participate in the life of a child being educated in English.

There are communication gaps between parent and child and parents are often unable to interact with teachers and school administrators.

This is increasingly becoming an issue in Lyons-Brookfield Elementary School District 103, where it’s estimated that 33 different languages are spoken languages in the homes of its students.

To address this, the district is offering free ESL (English as a Second Language) classes to parents for the second straight year. The program is a partnership with Morton College, which will provide the instructors for the classes held at District 103 schools.

Last year, there was only a class for beginners. Now, the district is expecting to divide the participants into four sections according to their scores on an English proficiency exam.

The classes coincide with the beginning of the Spanish-language classes offered to teachers

“I’m thrilled that we have all these participants that want to learn English and a lot of staff members wanting to learn Spanish,” said District 103 Superintendent Dr. Raymond Lauk.

“It’s just a wonderful mix. The whole issue of learning a second language adds richness to the school and the community. From a practical standpoint, when you have teachers learning Spanish and ESL parents, you’re bridging the gap and kids will benefit when school and parents are communicating.”

Jan Bernard, the principal at Edison School in Stickney, and the director of the district’s ESL program, said she has already seen greater participation among parents who were involved in last year’s program.

“I have one mom who wanted to help, but (likely because of the language barrier) was a little shy,” Bernard said. “But now, we’re seeing her involved in more activities and coming to more events. There is more of a comfort level. She’s not as afraid.”

Lauk said: “We’re seeing our Hispanic parents involved in leadership roles in the district and that’s wonderful.”

The 2005 ESL classes will last eight weeks, with two three-hour sessions per week. Information about the classes was sent home with children and Bernard, who was still fielding applications as of last week, said she was hoping to get 120 participants.

There is also a free child care option. Parents attending the classes are able to bring children between the ages of 6-13, and there will be ESL teachers present to work with those kids.

By recent counts, 905 of the District 103’s 2,200 students speak a primary language other than English. The majority of these students are Spanish speakers (708), but Serbian, Polish, Arabic and Bosnian are also languages represented in District 103’s six schools. Currently, 274 students are being serviced by English as a Second Language (ESL) instructors.

Some might view this as cumbersome to the educational process, but Superintendent Dr. Raymond Lauk, partly as a result of previous experience, only sees a great opportunity for growth.

The second-year superintendent previously spent three years as the superintendent of the American School in Brasilia, Brazil, where he oversaw a school full of English speakers learning Portuguese and native Brazilians learning English. It was there that Lauk first began to understand that students who speak different languages can be valuable learning resources for one another.

“We really had serious concerns about literacy instruction and students learning basic reading and writing skills.” Lauk said about the school in Brazil, where they eventually brought in a world-renowned linguistics expert as a consultant. “We had a literacy task force and we turned around our program.”

Lauk’s vision for language education in District 103 includes the eventual creation of language academies; after-school programs designed to accelerate the language education of English and non-English speakers.

But the development of such a program will depend on grant money, since the district is still bouncing back financially after a successful tax referendum in March 2003.

While the academies are on the horizon, there are still several language-related issues the district is forced to confront every day, namely how to improve the performance of its ESL students. These days, federal No Child Left Behind guidelines require a district’s non-English speaking students to test at a satisfactory level. If they do not, the district can be penalized.

To improve the performance of its ESL and non-ESL students alike, the district has worked with Virginia Rojas, the best-practices expert who helped turn Lauk’s language program around in Brazil. She has contracted to spend about 10 days in District 103 throughout this school year.

“We are responsible for all children,” said Jan Bernard, the principal at Stickney’s Edison School, and the director of the district’s ESL program. “Teachers must know the different practices so we’re not pulling kids out of class and isolating them. [Rojas] has taught strategies and worked on unit plans.”

The district’s decision to offer Spanish language courses to classroom teachers is also a move expected to have many benefits as time goes on.

“We have to accept diversity, embrace it and learn from each other,” said Bernard, in her third year as the ESL director. “We’re all in this together and our instruction has to reflect our community.”

?”Dan Shalin