Early childhood students, communities benefit from learning in second language

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Early childhood students, communities benefit from learning in second language

Early childhood students at St. Cletus School in LaGrange participate in their class on Jan. 10, 2024. (Sara Hodak/St. Cletus School)
Preschool students in the ECLIP program at St. Cletus School in LaGrange, gesture on Jan. 10, 2024. (Sara Hodak/St. Cletus School)
Sonia Sánchez, the ECLIP teacher at St. Cletus School in LaGrange, interacts with her students Jan. 10, 2024. (Sara Hodak/St. Cletus School)

Early childhood students at 17 Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Chicago are getting daily instruction in a second language, usually Spanish, in a program that educators call a win-win-win for students, families and schools.

The Early Childhood Language Intensive Program, known as ECLIP, offers at least 30 minutes a day of instruction in a second language, almost always Spanish, to early childhood students, with a goal of helping students both speak and read and write in the second language.

“We were asked at the very beginning to be a pilot school, and I saw the huge wins of the program,” said Elizabeth Dolack, principal of St. Mary of the Angels School, 1810 N. Hermitage Ave. “I see the students experiencing not only the language but the culture. They are learning proficiency in their comprehension, to articulate in the vocabulary they are learning, but the main thing is Ms. Cecilia is making it salient to them.”

Cecilia Morales is also a preschool aide at St. Mary of the Angels.

“I enjoy teaching in my native language and sharing my culture with my students,” she said. “I think they really enjoy it. This program is very fun. It’s basic songs and movements, like to learn the alphabet. At the beginning, they don’t know what I’m talking about. But little by little, they make the connections.”

ECLIP was launched in 10 schools in the fall of 2021 with the help of the University of Notre Dame’s Catholic School Advantage and English as a New Language programs. While a few schools have left the program, more have joined, and this year, Notre Dame is also helping Catholic schools in California, Arkansas, Indiana and Wisconsin implement the program.

Clare Roach, coordinator of dual language and English as a New Language for the Alliance for Catholic Education at Notre Dame, said the program benefits students; ECLIP teachers, who often are working as classroom aides in their schools; families who speak languages other than English; and the schools themselves.

“Let’s look at our students first and foremost,” Roach said. “There is tremendous benefit cognitively, for their brains, to navigate across cultures, to be bridge-builders, and later in life, there are economic benefits to being bilingual.

“For our students who are English learners, when students are more literate in their heritage language, it is easier for them to learn English.”

Students who primarily speak English also benefit from the cognitive benefits of learning in two languages, she said.

“Bilingual education is additive for everyone,” she said.

A survey of principals conducted last year found that wide majorities believed that having ECLIP in their schools elevated the status of Latino and Latina teachers, increased cultural engagement, increased enthusiasm for bilingualism and helped diversify the school’s liturgical celebrations, according to Erika Gallardo, Hispanic Outreach and Education coordinator for the Office of Catholic Schools.

Nilma Osiecki, principal of Pope Francis Global Academy, 6143 W. Irving Park Road, said emphasizing Spanish as well as English instruction in early childhood honors its global mission.

“It’s definitely a component of what education should be about, to address the whole child, to help everybody be seen and belong, to bring unity and community instead of divisiveness, to be inclusive,” Osiecki said.

Pope Francis Global Academy started using ECLIP in the fall of 2023, when the former St. Bartholomew School merged with the school as part of the newly united Our Lady of the Rosary Parish. Ostriecki had been principal of St. Bartholomew, which was one of the 10 original schools using ECLIP.

The community at Pope Francis Global Academy has embraced the program, she said.

“What I have come to appreciate is the parents’ excitement when the kids at home are singing the Spanish songs or they’re counting in Spanish and their parents have noticed that they are learning,” Osiecki said, noting that while the school has many Latino families, most of the children speak English at home.

ECLIP is different from many elementary school language programs because children are not being taught Spanish, they are being taught in Spanish, and learning material similar to what they are learning in their English-language classes, using curriculum modules developed at Notre Dame about common early childhood topics, Gallardo said. ECLIP teachers work with classroom teachers to make sure they are adding to and English-language lessons rather than simply reteaching them in Spanish.

“Anything they’re learning on the English side, they’re learning about on the Spanish side,” explained Sonia Sánchez, the ECLIP teacher at St. Cletus School in La Grange. “Weather, reading books, the alphabet, vocabulary.”

St. Cletus began offering ECLIP in preschool this year, and Sánchez, who has a daughter in kindergarten at the school, left a job in accounting to teach it.

“When they step into my class, they know it’s Spanish time,” she explained. “They come and talk to me in English, and I respond to them in Spanish.”

The schools with programs in languages other than Spanish — Mandarin at St. Therese Chinese Catholic School and Polish at St. Ferdinand School, 3131 N. Mason Ave. —  find their own materials.

Marta Otrowska, who teaches the Polish program at St. Ferdinand, taught at the college level in Poland and works with schools in Poland to help find material, she said.

St. Ferdinand also does ECLIP in Spanish, with early childhood students receiving instruction in both Spanish and Polish as well as English each day.

It is a way to honor the cultural makeup of the school, said Principal Erin Boyle Folino. The school is in a traditionally Polish area that has become more Latino in recent years. Now the student body is 60 percent Latino, 20 percent Polish and 20 percent other ethnicities.

“The population in the neighborhood is changing, and this shows that we are welcoming and open to our Spanish speakers as well as faithful to our Polish speakers,” Boyle Folino said.

“Our community is tremendously diverse,” said Sylvia Medellin, the Spanish ECLIP teacher. “A lot of them are looking to enhance what’s going on at home. “

They tell me they’re happy that their children are more confident speaking Spanish.”


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