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During the last seven years, the make-up of classrooms in the Two-Way Immersion (TWI) program has gradually shifted at the kindergarten level from the ideal of 50% Spanish-speaking and 50% English speaking students to 63% Spanish-speaking and 37% English-speaking students. The percentage of Spanish-speaking students in the program will likely increase next year unless the program is expanded, said Lauren Leitao, bilingual coordinator, and John Price, assistant superintendent of schools, in a memo presented to the School Board on Dec. 15.

On a related issue, Mr. Price and Ms. Leitao recommended that students from Spanish-speaking households who are proficient in both Spanish and English be given a preference in the process of selecting English-speaking students for the program.

The Board considered these issues last April, but decided to take a more comprehensive look at them this fall.

Shifts in the TWI Program

The TWI program has six strands (or, K-5 grade levels), one each at Dawes, Dewey, Oakton and Willard, and two at Washington. TWI is a bilingual program that exists first and foremost to serve Spanish-speaking students who are English language learners. In District 65, Spanish-speaking students have a right to participate; English-speaking students are given the option to apply, and they are selected based on criteria in the Board’s policies. 

The percentage of Spanish-speaking students in the TWI classrooms has increased and will likely increase even more next year due to two factors. First, “the population of Spanish-speaking students in District 65 is increasing,” said Ms. Leitao.  In the last seven years, the number of Spanish-speaking students in TWI kindergarten classes increased from 60 to 84, while the number of slots open to English-speaking students declined from 60 to 49.

A second factor is that the Illinois School Code provides that the student-teacher ratio in TWI classes may not exceed 90% of the average student-teacher ratio in general education classrooms for the same grades for the same school. With the exception of Oakton, the District’s kindergarten TWI class sizes are not in compliance with this rule, said Ms. Leitao. If the size of TWI kindergarten classes is reduced, the number of slots available for English-speaking students will be likely be reduced next year, unless other measures, such as expansion of the TWI program, are taken, said Ms. Leitao.

Ms. Leitao estimated that next year the number of slots available to English-speaking kindergartners in the TWI program may drop from 49 to 30, and might range from between three and six students per classroom.

Board member Suni Kartha noted that the District was moving away from the ideal that TWI classrooms be composed of 50% Spanish-speaking students and 50% English-speaking students. She asked, “Are we concerned about that?”

Ms. Leitao said research shows that two-way immersion (i.e., with Spanish-speaking and English-speaking students) is the best model, but one-way immersion is also a good model. “I think we can still provide a very solid program,” she said.

Last April, Ms. Leitao and other administrators recommended expanding the TWI program to include a seventh strand. Superintendent Paul Goren told the RoundTable, “We decided to hold off this time on expanding strands until we do a more complete analysis of the student population. We might very well come back to the Board with a recommendation to expand.”

Dr. Goren added that administrators did not anticipate that any English-speaking TWI students would need to withdraw from the TWI program to enable the District to comply with the rule that the size of TWI classes be no more than 90% of the average size of other classes in the school.

Adding a New Preference

The memo also recommends that in the process of selecting English-speaking students for the TWI program, the District give a preference to students who are from Spanish-speaking households but who are English proficient. Research suggests that these students are best served if they participate in a program that supports their bilingual and biliteracy development. Studies show that students who maintain their home language are more likely to sustain close family relationships and graduate from high school, said Ms. Leitao.

Ms. Leitao provided some numbers that estimated how the preferences might work together in selecting English-speaking students for kindergarten. Last year she said 21 kindergartners were selected based on a preference given to students who have a sibling in the program. She estimated that 6 students would have qualified under the proposed new preference. That would leave four slots for other English-speaking kindergartners, assuming there were a total of 30 slots open at that grade level.  

Board members at the meeting expressed support for amending the Board’s policies to provide a preference to students proficient in both Spanish and English. It is expected a formal vote to amend the Board’s policies will be taken next month.