Jason Harper, superintendent of schools in nearby Rochelle, knows that the diversity of his community is evolving.
Forty percent of the Hub City’s current population is Hispanic, a number that only will continue to rise in coming years.
Harper also understands that Rochelle schools must serve all of their students – and he is making sure they do so proactively.
“About four years ago, the elementary district in Rochelle made a decision to pursue and implement a dual-language program,” Harper says. “Students spend half of their day learning in English and half of their day learning in Spanish. Native Spanish speakers are learning, maintaining and improving their native Spanish, and vice versa.”
Research indicates that students from homes where a language other than English is spoken will outperform their peers if they receive all or part of their instruction in dual languages, he says.
Conversely, he adds, schools that pull English Language Learners out of their regular classrooms to learn English with no native language support “are less likely to be college- or career-ready. Ultimately, it becomes a huge equity issue.”
Further studies show numerous benefits of a dual-language education, he says, producing graduates who are bilingual, biliterate and bicultural. It’s an outcome Harper expects that he and his wife will pursue for their own children, who are still in preschool.
“We’re very excited about this. This is Year 3 in the elementary district, and we’re preparing to essentially add a second building so that two of our four schools offer these programs. Fifty percent of our families can opt in,” he says.
Dual-language classrooms in elementary schools eventually will scale up to the fifth-grade level as those children progress. In the fall of 2023, meanwhile, Rochelle Middle School will welcome its first dual-language students.
“And with that, obviously, we need to find, recruit and employ bilingual teachers,” Harper says. “One of the best ways to fulfill the need our district has in terms of bilingual teaching candidates is to facilitate a grow-your-own program.”
That’s where Bryan Garcia Belmonte and Morelia Garcia enter the picture.
Garcia Belmonte has known Harper for several years: when the the 2017 graduate of Rochelle Township High School self-identified as a future teacher, he called Harper “principal.”
Garcia, meanwhile, a 2013 alumna of RTHS, met Harper when she took a job working for a district-sponsored, after-school program. She became a site coordinator three years ago, and Garcia Belmonte joins her four days a week in operating the program at Central Elementary School.
Now the two are attending NIU for free: Rochelle Community Consolidated School District 231 is paying the tuition for the third and fourth years of school for both Huskies.
They will complete their clinical and student-teaching placements in Rochelle and, following their respective 2022 and 2021 graduations, will take the guaranteed jobs awaiting them there.
“It’s really helpful for me because my parents don’t have that financial burden,” Garcia Belmonte says. “I don’t have to worry about what it’s going to take to finish college. I can put my time into thinking about my schooling and focus on graduating.”
“It’s amazing. I wish I would’ve started earlier,” Garcia adds. “When they came to me with this idea, I already was planning to stay in Rochelle because it’s home. I knew the teachers. I knew the administrators. I knew it would be a good fit for me. I signed the contract.”
Jennifer Johnson, director of Teacher Preparation and Development for the NIU College of Education, appreciates the opportunity to develop and foster university-school partnerships that provide dynamic opportunities for engaged learning and clinical field experiences.
“It’s exciting to see the incredible level of energy, passion and understanding of their community that Morelia and Bryan have brought to their field experiences,” Johnson says.
“We value agreements like this one because we embrace the culture of preparing future educators to teach in their home community,” she adds. “This not only supports the intentional recruitment efforts of the district, but also removes some of the financial barriers for our students.”
Raised in Spanish-speaking homes, Garcia Belmonte and Garcia find rewards and inspiration in those classroom moments when students “finally understand something” – and equally feel an obligation to serve students like themselves.
“I want to be a good role model for these Latino kids as Rochelle continues to grow in Latino homes,” Garcia Belmonte says. “When I was younger, I just spoke Spanish. I took English classes in summer school from preschool through kindergarten. I didn’t take dual-language classes until I got into high school.”
He also hopes to expunge negative perceptions of “the male Latino,” and is grateful for his NIU-empowered opportunity to do so in his hometown.
“All my family is here, and I don’t feel like I can leave Rochelle because I have unfinished business here,” he says. “Hopefully, I can make a change, and hopefully I can inspire other kids to also make that change, little by little.”
For her part, Garcia wants to deliver a beacon of light for families like hers.
“Growing up as an English Language Learner for my whole education, and being in a first-generation American family, with my parents not speaking English, it was very difficult when I was younger because I had no one to help me with my homework,” she says.
“I want to help kids in the same position I was, and helping their parents as well. My family needed translators. I grew up with that,” she adds. “Coming to NIU is a good way to become a bilingual teacher and to help and support those students.”
Superintendent Harper has great confidence in his pair of trailblazers, both of whom he also mentored through their associate degree programs at Kishwaukee College.
“They’re young. They’re vibrant. They’re passionate about education. They’re passionate about supporting our students,” he says.
“We have routine meetings to support both of them as they go through their education courses, and that serves a couple purposes,” he adds, “one, to make sure they’re able to stay on top of things, and two, to provide support and insight to help them with real-life applications of what they’re learning.”
He is eager to identify the next Huskies who will follow in their paths.
“We’ll have bilingual teachers who are homegrown, who understand our community, who understand our kids, who understand the culture and climate of our buildings, who’ve had multiple opportunities to be mentored by our teachers,” he says. “And when they come here to teach, they’re ready to impact our students to the best of their abilities.”
Rochelle’s need for bilingual educators obviously isn’t going away, he says, and soon will include middle school teachers, special education teachers, reading specialists, school psychologists and social workers.
Fortunately, he adds, members of the two school boards clearly recognize the implications of the demographics.
“They’re supportive of our efforts and identify, support and employ high-quality candidates, no matter the position,” Harper says. “They deeply understand the general shortage of teachers, and the specific shortage of bilingual teachers and bilingual specialists, and that we need to find creative ways to compete with other districts that might offer higher compensation.”
Partnering with NIU offers that creative way, the superintendent says, and promotes excellence for Rochelle schools.
“Our end product is going to be something really special,” Harper says.
“We’re going to graduate students who are fully bilingual, fully biliterate and fully bicultural, who read, write and speak Spanish and who understand the culture, the perceptions and the viewpoints of other cultures within in our community, our country and the landscape beyond our borders,” he adds. “Without a doubt, this is a 21st century skill – and our graduates will be competitive in that global economy.”