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Without a High School Option, Is Studying Foreign Language in CPS a Waste?

By Paul Biasco | November 21, 2014 5:28am
 Lauren Blair and her children, Andrew and Erin Wheeler, who attend Lasalle II
Lauren Blair and her children, Andrew and Erin Wheeler, who attend Lasalle II
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DNAinfo/Paul Biasco

OLD TOWN — Keith Thomas' fifth-grade twins are studying Mandarin Chinese, while some of their classmates at LaSalle Language Academy chose Arabic.

When it's time for the twins and their peers to throw their names into the hat that is the Chicago Public Schools high school selection process, those years of language could be tossed out the window, some parents say.

The reason: There is no language academy at the high school level in Chicago, leaving parents of children who have spent years studying in language-focused elementary schools to ask, "Where do our kids go next?"

Thomas, a co-chairman of the Local School Council at LaSalle Language Academy, 1734 N. Orleans St., is part of a group of parents from the city's four elementary language academies who have united to push for such a language academy high school.

Paul Biasco discusses why parents are urging the mayor to open a high school language academy:

A language high school, Thomas said, would allow certain students, some of whom have been studying foreign languages since kindergarten, to continue their interest "much like someone who is a good musician."

The city operates four public elementary academies where students, four to five days a week, intensively study languages including Mandarin, Arabic, Urdu, Italian, French, Spanish and Japanese.

The schools are LaSalle; LaSalle II, 1148 N. Honore St. in West Town; Andrew Jackson, 1340 W. Harrison St. on the Near West Side; and Murray, 5335 S. Kenwood Ave. in Hyde Park.

The city's top selective-enrollment schools, such as Walter Payton College Prep, 1034 N. Wells St., and Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, 211 S. Laflin St., do offer numerous language classes, but getting into those schools is challenging, even with good test scores, and the language offerings differ at each school.

"Maybe the high school you get into doesn't have Arabic, maybe it doesn't have advanced French," said Michele Dreczynski, a LaSalle II Magnet School parent and founder of the project. "It's just so random."

Dreczynski, who is a member of LaSalle II's parent-teacher organization, began organizing the push for a new high school about seven months ago, including getting parents from the city's other three language academies on board.

"CPS invested all this money and time, and the kids invested, and the families invested," she said. "Say you take eight years of Arabic, and the high school you go to, they don’t offer it. Then you’ve lost the investment you put in."

A Chicago Public Schools spokeswoman said CPS "has heard from parents and community members calling for a world language high school that would establish a continuum for students emerging from world language magnet elementary schools."

The spokeswoman, Lauren Huffman, said CPS will consider community requests as it looks for ways to strengthen the city's high schools. CPS doesn't have a formal process for proposing new selective-enrollment schools.

Parents pushing for the school hope to replicate the model of the four language academies that includes not only intensive language instruction but also a cultural studies component that could include programs such as international business education.

Students would take other classes, such as history and art, taught in the world language. The programs would benefit, according to the group, from foreign consulates, cultural institutions and corporations that have developed ties to Chicago.

"It’s a robust model, and it supports the whole idea of building world citizenry," Dreczynski said.


Lauren Blair, an attorney who now lives in Wicker Park, was part of the first class at LaSalle Language Academy when it became a magnet school open to all Chicago students in the early '80s.

Now she hopes her kids will be part of the first language academy high school once they graduate from LaSalle II.

“There's no question in my mind that having exposure at a young age to second-language learning has opened doors culturally, educationally," she said. "There's no question why I went to an Ivy League university, why I went on to grad school.”

Blair was the first in her family to go to college.

She enrolled her children in LaSalle II so they could have the same experiences she did growing up.

“It has the ability to give options to those who aren’t part of the white affluent population that may have an advantage competing for the selective-enrollment slots," Blair said. "I put that out there, unabashedly.”

The city's elementary language academies, all of which are magnet schools, are some of the most diverse schools in CPS.

The parents behind the push for a high school envision the secondary school would have a similarly diverse demographic.

They propose an enrollment process that would involve an entrace test establishing language proficiency. 

So far the group has met with Mayor Rahm Emanuel's deputy chief of staff, Arnie Rivera, and a number of officials within CPS.

Organizers said those meetings have been positive, but CPS has been hesitant to jump on board since the backlash of the surprise announcement of what was formerly to be called Barack Obama College Prep.

To combat that reluctance, high school language academy supporters said the mayor's office and others have instructed them to ramp up support in the communities.

The Chicago Language Academy High School group has launched a petition and is garnering support within schools at the Local School Council level as well as parent-teacher organization meetings.

“When we work together, we can affect positive change for the education system in our city which receives a lot of attention for failing our children,” Blair said.

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