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Five Chicago universities team up to push harder for bilingual education in public schools

Kelly Wilkinson / The Star

Bilingualism Matters, an international research center, has partnered with local universities to launch a Chicago chapter aimed at helping families and schools navigate bilingual education.

The new center is a collaboration between scientists and linguists at Northwestern University, Loyola University Chicago, the University of Illinois at Chicago, DePaul University and the University of Chicago.

Related: At one Chicago high school, big plans amid a bilingual teacher shortage

One member of the consortium, Spanish professor Kim Potowski with the University of Illinois at Chicago, said she envisions a Chicago where every child at every school is educated in multiple languages, and where Spanish isn’t the only foreign language taught at district dual-language programs.

“But we can’t do this without creating more bilingual teachers,” she said.

While Chicago Public Schools has increasingly put emphasis on Spanish-English dual language programs, it has struggled to recruit bilingual teachers even as it expands biliteracy initiatives. The district student body is nearly half Latino.

Related: The struggle to diversify Chicago’s teaching ranks

Bilingualism Matters aims to raise awareness of bilingualism with educators, parents, and community groups, provide guidance on helping bilingual children deal with pressure to abandon their home language, and lobby for an expansion of bilingual education at local schools. Potowski said, “the teacher prep piece is important.”

The group might explore ways to help colleges and universities train bilingual teachers, said Potowski, who directs the Spanish for Heritage Speakers program at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

About 2.5 million residents in the Chicago area speak a language other than English at home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Studies show that bilingualism boosts a person’s attention and ability to process information. Speaking multiple languages can also be a boon for job seekers.

Bilingualism Matters was born in 2008 at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and has multiple locations across the globe. The Chicago center plans to hold a launch event Tuesday at Loyola’s Water Tower Campus in Downtown. The event is free, open to the public and kicks off at 5:30 p.m.

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