Getting your Evanston news from Facebook? Try the Evanston RoundTable’s free daily and weekend email newsletters – sign up now!

Twenty-two Latino parents met with School District 65 administrators on July 16 for two hours to discuss their concerns about the District’s bilingual program for pre-K students and the Two-Way Immersion (TWI) program for K-5 students.

The focus of the discussion was a concern that some Latino families feel they are being forced to enroll their children in the District’s bilingual program at the pre-K levels (conducted in Spanish) and that if they waived participating in that program they were being denied the opportunity to participate in the District’s Head Start or Pre-K at Risk programs (conducted in English).

At a Board meeting on June 18, many Latino parents said they wanted their children to be taught in English, rather than in Spanish, so they would learn the language early on.

By law, District 65 is required to offer bilingual services to Latino students who are not English proficient. Parents, however, may waive putting their children in those classes, and apply to attend the District’s Head Start or Pre-K at Risk programs. Superintendent Hardy Murphy said, though, that children of parents who waive putting their child in a bilingual program are not guaranteed admission to the Head Start or Pre-K at Risk programs.

Conception Calderon, bilingual department at District 65, explained that under federal and state law, the District must give priority to students who are most in need as determined by examining a set of at-risk factors. Thus if all the spaces for the Head Start and Pre-K at Risk programs are filled, some students who are less in need may not be able to attend those programs and will be put on a waiting list, she said.

Several parents said the issue was one of capacity, and that District 65 should expand its capacity to accommodate all children on the waiting lists for the Head Start or Pre-K at Risk programs.

Superintendent Hardy Murphy responded that the District’s classrooms in the early childhood center were already filled to capacity and that the District was expending the full amount of its grant funds for those programs. He added that expanding the District’s capacity of pre-K services would require using its operating funds which would place additional stress on its budget. He said this would require further discussion on policy and budgetary issues.

Several Latino parents also said they felt their children were being “steered” into the TWI program. As an example, one parent said she was sent forms each year asking her to waive the TWI program. She said after she said “no,” she should not be asked to sign a waiver again.

Ms. Calderon said under state law, if a student has been assessed as not being English-proficient, the District is required to test that student annually for English proficiency and to advise parents of the results, together with the District’s recommendation. She said, the recommendation may be that the child attend the TWI program.

An overriding concern is that many Latino parents at the meeting wanted to preserve their choice to immerse their children in English classes, rather than having them attend classes in a bilingual or TWI program taught in Spanish. They feel this is a better way for their children to learn English.

Several other Latino parents at the meeting, however, supported the TWI program, and said they were attending the meeting to support the continuation of that program.

The TWI program, which is composed of roughly one-half Spanish-speaking children and one-half English speaking children, primarily teaches children in Spanish at the early grade levels, and gradually shifts to teaching in English over time. Dr. Murphy said that research showed this method had better results over time than immersing Spanish-speaking students in English-only classes.

He said, however, the District would need to step back and look at the rules and regulations applicable to Head Start, make sure that parents are being advised about their right to waive bilingual services and the possibility their child may not be given a spot in Head Start, make sure the District is not influencing parents to participate in the District’s bilingual programs, and make sure parents understand all of the program offerings.

He said this would not be the last meeting. “Our programs aren’t perfect,” he said. “But our intentions are perfect. We’ll continue to try to improve.”