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On April 14, the District 65 School Board considered a proposal to give two new groups of students a priority in the process of selecting students who are non-English language learners for the Two-Way Immersion (TWI) program. The groups are: 1) students who were enrolled in a D65 bilingual pre-k classroom; and 2) students who are fluent in both English and Spanish based on an assessment in both languages.

The Board also considered a proposal to add a new strand to the TWI program.

Board members felt both proposals could have long-term ramifications. They reached a compromise solution for next year and decided to take up the issue in a more comprehensive way in the fall.

The Numbers and Rationale

There are currently six strands of TWI at five schools: one strand each at Dawes, Dewey, Oakton and Willard; and two strands at Washington.

In this year’s kindergarten classes, there were 78 English language learners (ELL) in the TWI program; and 59 non-ELL students. There is a total of 137 kindergartners, with an average class size of 22.8 students.

The program was designed to have an equal number of ELL and non-ELL students in each classroom. Adding a seventh strand for TWI would allow the District to add more non-ELL students and bring the balance closer to 50/50. This is viewed as important because some non-ELL students typically drop out of the program between first and fifth grades, which throws off the balance as time goes on.

In addition, adding a seventh strand would create slots for students who are bilingual (i.e., proficient in both Spanish and English).

Lauren Laitao, bilingual coordinator, said the proposed changes were “largely due to the changing demographics of the District.” She said, “We find that our students who are entering kindergarten are increasingly bilingual, they have a lot of English language skills in addition to their Spanish language skills. We found last year and we found again this year that we have several students who are in our bilingual pre-K program who test English proficient on the screening test, so they don’t qualify for TWI [as ELL students], and they have to enter the general lottery. Both parents and teachers have expressed concerns that those students will struggle in the mainstream without resources that the bilingual teacher can provide.”

Ms. Laitao added, “We believe bilingual students benefit from the program because they utilize both of their languages in order to be successful in school.” She added that other students in the program would benefit by having bilingual students in the classroom.

At this stage of the enrollment process, it is not clear how many Spanish-speaking ELL students will be enrolled in the TWI kindergarten class next year. They have a right to be in the program unless they waive the ELL service. This year, 57% of the kindergarten students in the TWI program are Spanish-speaking ELL students, and 43% are English-speaking non-ELL students.

If a priority is given next year to non-ELL students in the District’s pre-K bilingual program, up to nine of those students would be guaranteed a spot in the TWI program. If a priority is given to students who are fluent in both Spanish and English, up to six students might be guaranteed a spot.

Discussion of the Priority

Several Board members questioned why students who are fluent in both English and Spanish would be given a preference over other non-ELL students.

Katie Bailey said the underlying purpose of the TWI program is to serve students whose native language is Spanish and who are ELL students. As designed, about 50% of the class should be Spanish speaking ELL students and 50% English-speaking non-ELL students.

If the bilingual students were given a priority in the selection process, it would change the purpose of the program, said Ms. Bailey. She said this should be carefully thought out before making a change.

Board President Tracy Quattrocki said if the District gave priority to bilingual students in the selection process, it would reduce the number of English-speaking students who would be admitted to the program unless another strand of TWI were added. “It would change the balance in the classrooms, which I don’t think we necessarily want to do, she said.”

Ms. Bailey fine-tuned the focus by delving into whether bilingual students were in fact English proficient or whether they were “on the cusp” or “on the threshold” of being English proficient. “If kids are on the cusp we have to find how to deal with that,” she said.

Ms. Quattrocki said she agreed that “kids on the cusp belong in TWI.”

Candance Chow said the achievement data show that students in the TWI program do better than other students. If students are on the cusp, “we can serve them best in the TWI program,” she said.

Defining whether a student was on the cusp or truly English proficient is difficult to define. Ms. Laitao said the State gives a test to students and those who score over a 5.0 are deemed English proficient. She said she was reluctant to pick out a different score that would identify English proficiency.

For the 2014-15 school year, Board members concurred that students who are currently in the pre-K bilingual program at District 65 will be admitted to the TWI program as kindergartners. They also concurred that students who are fluent in both Spanish and English will be allowed into the TWI program through an administrative ruling.

A Seventh TWI Strand

Ms. Bailey opposed adding a new TWI strand for the 2014-15 school year, saying, “If we add a strand it impacts a school and impacts a school long term. You need to think it through.”

Board member Richard Rykhus said, “The numbers make me pause. I’m personally not comfortable about adding another strand right now based on the numbers and based on the policy implications.” He asked if the administrators had come up with a potential site.

Assistant Superintendent Ellen Fogelberg said there are two TWI strands in the elementary schools that feed into Chute Middle School, one strand that feeds into Haven, and three strands that feed into Nichols. She said administrators are thinking of putting another strand in a school that would feed into Haven to balance out the programs amongst the middle schools.

She added that there is a large group of native Spanish speaking students in the Walker and Lincoln attendance areas, and said Lincolnwood is in the Haven feeder system and might draw Spanish-speaking students from the Walker area. She said Oakton “already has a challenging population and I’m not sure we want to add another strand there.”

Ms. Quattrocki suggested looking at adding a second strand to one of the schools that already has a TWI program. She said, “I think we need to look at the achievement of those kids where we have a double strand and where there’s a single strand. We want to make sure we’re really maximizing the program.”

Ms. Bailey likewise said, “I would look at where you have another program because you have shared resources.”

Mr. Rykhus said administrators should analyze where Spanish-speaking students are located, and what site might best serve their needs.

Board member Suni Kartha suggested setting a timeline for making a decision. “The demographics are changing,” she said. “This is going to come up again. We should have a timeline.”

Ms. Quattrocki said the Board will take a more comprehensive look at the proposed changes in policy and whether to add a new TWI strand in the fall.