A District 65 School Board committee voted Monday to maintain existing priorities for placing English-speaking students in the district’s two-way immersion bilingual education program.

It rejected an administration plan to reduce the preference for siblings of children already in the program from first to fifth on the priority list and limit preference given children from a school’s neighborhood attendance area.

The two-way immersion program would remain at six neighborhood schools under the proposal recommended by the board’s Program/Policy Committee. 

The board will hold a special meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 11, at the Joseph E. Hill Education Center, 1500 McDaniel Ave., to hear residents’ comments about whether Willard School should continue to host the north side outpost of the program or whether it should be moved to another school such as Kingsley.

The board plans to act on the bilingual program at its Dec. 18 meeting.

The primary goal of the two-way immersion program is to help Spanish-speaking students gain English language skills.  Students who speak Spanish as their native language are automatically entitled to spaces in the program.

In each classroom, native Spanish speakers make up about 50-60 percent of the students, while the rest are native English speakers.

Board members raised many questions about the administration’s proposal to alter how native English-speaking students are accepted into the program.  Currently, the top priority is reserved for children who have a sibling already enrolled in the TWI program and the next priority is reserved for neighborhood children.

The Administration proposal would have guaranteed neighborhood children 20 percent of the spaces for native English-speakers.  So, just two English speakers from the neighborhood would be guaranteed spaces in each 20-student classroom.  The Administration wanted to be able to consider other factors in the selection process, such as the racial balance of the TWI school and the racial balance of the schools from which other families applied.

In considering the change in selection criteria, board member Julie Chernoff said that a number of families had written to her saying the sibling preference was always viewed as an essential part of the program for families to remain committed to the demands of having their children learn another language at a young age.  She said, “you can see why parents believe that promises were made” that the sibling preference was fundamental to the program.

Board member Jonathan Baum said that if the administration believes that a double strand, such as currently exists at Washington School, is negatively affecting the racial and ethnic makeup of the general education program at the school, then the issue should be addressed head on, rather than through the selection process for the program.  “If the mix [of students] in gen ed isn’t what it should be, then we have to talk about what we want to do to address that issue,” he said.

In response to questions about the change in the selection criteria, Superintendent Hardy Murphy said changing the selection criteria wasn’t a crucial aspect of the proposal.  “We won’t fall on our swords” to keep the 20 percent neighborhood preference in the proposal, Murphy said.

On the best north-side location for the program, board members encouraged the public to provide input on the issue of native Spanish-speaking families on the north side of Evanston and whether their preference is to attend Willard or Kingsley.

During the meeting’s public comment period, virtually all of the speakers addressed whether Willard School should remain the host school for two-way immersion. 

Two Willard parents spoke against it, but seven others argued that the program should remain there.  One of those parents, Pam Tingley, said the bilingual program provides a tremendous opportunity for enhanced diversity for a school that has more than 60 percent white students.  She said that with a significant number of English language learners from the Orrington, Kingsley, Lincolnwood and Willard areas, all of those children can attend Willard and then attend Haven Middle School together.

This fall, new bilingual kindergartens were placed at Willard, Kingsley and Walker.  The administration decided enrollment at Kingsley was too low, and those children were relocated to other schools.  Board member Julie Chernoff said that she saw strong arguments in favor of keeping a north side school in the bilingual program.  But she asked the administration why it decided to close the Kingsley program when Kingsley is more centrally located among the north side Evanston schools than Willard which is located in the far northwestern corner of Evanston.

“I can’t understand why Willard was kept open but Kingsley was closed,” Chernoff said.  She said that the only reason given by the Administration is that there was more support from the parents of the native English speakers at Willard.  But Chernoff said that it is the needs of the native Spanish speakers that should dictate program decides.  She said that other factors, such as Kingsley’s larger number of classrooms and more central location, weighed in favor of consolidating the Willard classroom into Kingsley.

In discussing the need to bus native Spanish-speaking children to schools outside their neighborhood, Board member Jerome Summers asked whether the detriment of such busing was overstated in a community the size of Evanston.  He said that even riding a bus “from Howard to Isabella” should not be viewed as a monumental undertaking.

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