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D65 sorts through bilingual options

In a five-hour meeting ending just after midnight this morning, the District 65 School Board continued its review of the administration’s proposal to house the two-way Spanish immersion program at the six elementary schools where it is currently offered.

In a five-hour meeting ending just after midnight this morning, the District 65 School Board continued its review of the administration’s proposal to house the two-way Spanish immersion program at the six elementary schools where it is currently offered.

Board members questioned whether fewer schools should house the program, referred to as TWI, and whether an additional group of kindergarten through fifth grade students, referred to as a strand, should be added to provide more flexibility if projected student enrollment is underestimated.

They also asked whether TWI classrooms should be targeted for 23 students when many district classrooms are smaller than 20 students, and whether the administration’s plan to reduce the neighborhood and sibling preferences for selecting TWI students is justified.

In the TWI program, certain elementary school classrooms mix native Spanish-speaking students and native English speakers. The goal is for Spanish-speaking students to acquire English without losing their native language.

While the same curriculum is taught as in other classrooms throughout the district, much of the content is taught in Spanish, especially in kindergarten through second grade. Then, as the children move through the grades, more of the curriculum is taught in English.

The board plans to discuss the TWI proposal again at its Dec. 4 meeting then host a community meeting to obtain public input on the proposal. The board vote on the proposal is slated for Dec. 18.

Currently, there are single-strand TWI classrooms at Dawes, Dewey, Walker and Willard schools. Washington has two strands of TWI classrooms and Oakton has a single strand at all levels except first grade where there are two TWI classrooms to accommodate a large group of kindergartners who entered Oakton last fall. The administration proposes eliminating one of the TWI strands at Washington beginning with next fall’s incoming kindergarten class.

Several board members expressed reservations about the administration’s plan to operate single strands of the program at all six schools, rather than consolidating the program into five or fewer schools.

Board member Sharon Sheehan said many TWI teachers support a dual strand of TWI at one or two schools because they believe that this configuration provides enhanced opportunities for TWI grade level teams to work together. She said the two strand model at Washington is working well.

Board members also questioned whether seven strands of TWI would allow for more flexibility if native Spanish speakers enroll in Evanston schools in higher-than-projected numbers next fall.

Board member Mary Rita Luecke raised the issue of redistricting to allow either Washington or Oakton School to house multiple strands of TWI so that TWI classrooms could be consolidated in just three schools. She said Dewey and Dawes have demonstrated the ability to maintain strong general education and TWI programs so they should maintain their single strands of TWI.

Ms. Luecke questioned whether it is too difficult for a school with a substantial number of students in poverty to give attention to both TWI and the general education classrooms. The district’s Opening of Schools Report this fall showed Oakton and Washington schools with the highest percentages of low income students — 71 percent at Oakton and 54 percent at Washington.

She suggested the district should focus on rebuilding parents’ confidence in the general education programs at those two schools.

But Superintendent Hardy Murphy disagreed with the assumption that flight by middle income families has been substantial at Washington or Oakton. Board member Julie Chernoff said she has heard reports that several private schools in Evanston have very large kindergartens this fall, suggesting that families are leaving the public schools.

Some board members questioned why the administration proposes changing the criteria used to select children for the TWI program.

Currently, neighborhood children have preference for all of the spaces for English-speaking students at their neighborhood school. Under the administration’s proposal, the neighborhood preference would be guaranteed for only 20 percent of the spaces for English-speaking students.

That means, using the administration’s guidelines, a classroom of 23 TWI students would have 10 native English speakers. Only two of the 10 spaces for native English speakers would be guaranteed to children from the neighborhood attendance area. The administration would be free to select children from other schools for the remaining eight spaces.

Superintendent Murphy stressed that the 20 percent neighborhood preference was a “floor” and that the percentage of neighborhood students could actually be higher at some schools. But board member Jonathan Baum questioned whether the administration would hold the neighborhood preference at 20 percent at Oakton and Washington Schools so that neighborhood children in those schools would be kept out of the TWI program in hopes that they would join the general education population.

While a few parents from Willard School spoke in favor of keeping a TWI strand at their school, many more encouraged the board to place that single strand at another school. Those parents claimed that Willard is simply too small to house two strands of general education and one strand of TWI without displacing the teachers’ lounge or putting a classroom in the basement.

Also at the meeting:

  • The board authorized staff to prepare documents for the issuance of $10 million in bonds to pay for capital improvements to address life-safety issues at various facilities.
  • The board voted to change the policy for public comments at board meetings. Currently, up to 20 members of the public are allowed to speak for three minutes each at the beginning of each board meeting. Under the new policy, the board will allow more members of the public to speak but each will receive his or her pro rata share of 60 minutes. In addition, informal presentations by the public at the end of the board meeting will be limited to a total of 30 minutes. Also, members of the public cannot request to be on the speakers’ list for a particular meeting until the notice for that meeting has been posted on the district’s website.
  • Patricia Markham, the district’s communications officer, said several media outlets have asked to photograph the Afro-Centric Curriculum classrooms located at Oakton School. She said the district is arranging media events for that program in the first week of December and parents in that program will get media consent forms.

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