How Illinois school districts can train more bilingual educators

For years, enrollment in Illinois’ public schools has been on the decline, but the number of English learners is on the rise.

English learners are students in pre-K to 12th grade who require additional programming to develop academic English so they can fully participate in school. From 2010-2011 to the 2020-2021 school year, the English learner population in Illinois grew from 156,888 to 245,592 students. The number rose to more than 271,000 for the 2023-2024 school year.

A recent increase includes the growing number of new migrant students in Chicago and surrounding suburbs. These students require qualified bilingual educators to succeed. Without such teachers, vital lessons in math, science and reading fall by the wayside.

In other words, the fastest-growing group of students in the state often do not have equal access to the education afforded to English-proficient students because there simply aren’t enough teachers with the specialized knowledge and skills to effectively teach these students in both their home language and English.

Research unequivocally shows that when English learners receive high-quality language instruction in both English and their home language, they are significantly more likely to excel academically. While the bilingual teacher shortage disproportionately affects Spanish-speaking Latino students, it has far-reaching consequences, impacting young students from diverse linguistic backgrounds.

Steps to improve bilingual education

Illinois has made important steps to address the shortage:

  • A $2.8 million increase to the Minority Teacher Illinois Scholarship with a set-aside to prioritize bilingual educators;
  • $45 million in Teacher Vacancy Grants, part of a pilot program aimed at addressing chronic shortages by providing the state’s most understaffed districts with resources to attract, hire, support and retain teachers. Many of the targeted districts have large English learner populations and are dedicated to building a bilingual teacher pipeline;
  • $4 million in federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds to support licensed educators to take courses for the bilingual/English as a Second Language endorsements.

Even more, the Illinois State Board of Education’s fiscal year 2025 budget recommends a $35 million appropriation for supporting newcomers. If approved, districts can use this money to hire bilingual educators and provide professional development on best practices to support these students.

These investments are critical as access to qualified bilingual/ESL educators is the most significant in-school factor for English learner achievement. These educators believe that students’ home language is an advantage rather than an obstacle to their learning. They use theoretical knowledge and specific strategies to ensure students develop the knowledge and skills needed to engage in their learning.

Addressing the teacher shortage

But where can Illinois districts find quality bilingual teachers? Fortunately, we are not in the dark here; we have evidence-based solutions within our reach. Along with current investments in bilingual and ESL endorsements and specialized professional development, the Latino Policy Forum recently collaborated with the State Board of Education to offer guidance on additional strategies including:

  1. Engage high school students: In Illinois, Educators Rising offers a compelling model and curriculum for recruiting high school students into the teaching profession. High school students on the path toward the Seal of Biliteracy represent a prime source of potential candidates for this program and would ease the gap for bilingual educators as they have earned recognition for exhibiting college readiness in both English and a foreign language.
  2. Train paraprofessionals: School-based classroom staff, with their multifaceted roles, including direct translation, are an invaluable resource. They often mirror the linguistic diversity among students, with 1 in 5 paraprofessionals speaking a language other than English at home.
  3. Recruit and support career-changers: Community members who share the same language as students and possess bachelor’s degrees in non-teaching fields can be recruited and supported to earn a provisional license, enabling them to start teaching while working toward full teacher licensure.

Addressing the bilingual teacher shortage is an investment in our state’s future. It prepares English learners to excel academically and contribute fully to our diverse society. Leaving these students behind is not an option.

Erika Méndez is director of PreK-12 education policy for the Latino Policy Forum. Rebecca Vonderlack-Navarro, Ph.D., is vice president of education policy and research for the Latino Policy Forum.

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