The District 65 School Board appears inclined to approve a proposal to convert Bessie Rhodes to an all TWI school

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At the District 65 School Board’s meeting on Nov. 21, twelve parents gave passionate pleas to maintain Bessie Rhodes as a global studies magnet school and not to gradually convert it to a Two-Way Immersion (TWI) school. A group of parents also presented an alternative proposal to establish a TWI community school at the Family Focus building in the Fifth Ward.

Superintendent Paul Goren made clear from the start that administrators were sticking with their recommendation to establish two strands of TWI at the kindergarten level next year at Bessie Rhodes, and then to expand it to first grade the next year, and one grade level each year after that.

He said, “Our recommendation after extensive analysis is to implement the TWI program at Bessie Rhodes and really to underscore the global studies focus that goes on there.”

Dr. Goren added, “I want to state publicly that I’m very committed to working to address the needs of Fifth Ward families and children, especially given the history here in Evanston.” He said, however, that to build a new school or to buy a building to use as a new school would require a referendum, and that to operate a new school would cost an additional $2.5 million in operating expenses per year. “The only way to have those significant revenues would be potentially to close a school,” he said.

Dr. Goren said he was willing to  dig deeper and look at how to address the issues of educating children in the Fifth Ward, “yet, I also believe we need to move forward on the two strands of TWI so we can provide those services with fidelity as we promised.”

The five School Board members who were present all expressed support for converting Bessie Rhodes into an all TWI school. In addition several Board members expressed support for exploring the option of establishing a school in the Fifth Ward.

Parents’ Opposition

Twelve parents  of students at Bessie Rhodes, who reflected a diverse mix of races, ethnicities, and cultures, spoke and requested that the District maintain Bessie Rhodes as a global studies school. One group of parents made a joint presentation. Other parents gave personal remarks. All emphasized that they chose Bessie Rhodes because it offered global studies and is a special place.

Donna Wang Su said, “Bessie Rhodes is a wonderful example of diversity in District 65.” She said the school is 37% Black, 28% White, 13% Latino, 13% Multi-Racial, and 9% Asian. Families at the school speak 14 different languages at home. “The languages spoken at home reflect the global nature of Bessie Rhodes,” she said.

Olga Borovski said that 363 people have signed an online petition, opposing the proposal to convert the school into an all TWI School. She added that the group emailed a survey to Bessie Rhodes families, which was open between Nov. 9 and 15, and 127 surveys were completed. She said 53% of the respondents said they would most likely remove their child from Bessie Rhodes and send their child to another school if Bessie Rhodes was converted to an all TWI school. Another 12% said they would most likely keep their child at the school for at least the first year to see how it works out; 18% said they did not know what they would do.

Ms. Borovski said, “The top concerns of parents include low teacher morale and the expectation that teachers will begin to leave before their grade is changed over to TWI.” She added that 83% of the respondents said they thought converting the school to an all TWI school would have a negative impact on the school.

Henry Wilkins said, “This proposal creates inequity among Blacks, and this ethnic group is who you’re targeting to bring in to TWI. As such we have a proposal that we think better addresses equity, not only for Blacks but also Hispanics.

“We are recommending that District 65 develop a strategic partnership to create a community school with the current tenants of the Family Focus building.” He said the benefits would include reducing the need to bus many students, and addressing the needs of students in a holistic approach. He added that if District 65 leased the Family  Focus building, it would not need a referendum.

On Nov. 7, Family Focus, Inc. announced the Family Focus building at 2010 Dewey Ave. was for sale, and that it had been appraised at $2.4 million. This does not include the cost to rehab the building.

John Morris said if a TWI school were established in the Fifth Ward, it would reduce the need to bus many TWI students who are English language learners (ELLs). He said it would reduce the need to bus 56% of TWI students who are ELLs.

One parent said “Bessie Rhodes is a special place. … Because we don’t know what the global studies program would look like, I’m more inclined to leaving the school.” He added, “The current proposal doesn’t have concrete recommendations on how to integrate TWI with the global studies program.”

Others expressed concern about teachers leaving. One parent questioned, “If you know you’re on the way out, why not do so now?

Another parent expressed a sentiment of many Bessie Rhodes parents:  “To announce a proposal basically one month before a vote without input from parties affected is simply not fair to those who have committed to the community we call Rhodes. The lack of inclusion before the last month of the entire Rhodes community is frankly appalling.”

Administrators Reasons for Recommending Bessie Rhodes  

At the Board’s meeting, Stacy Beardsley, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, reiterated the six reasons for recommending that two strands of TWI be placed at Bessie Rhodes:

  • There is a strong alignment between the goals for the TWI program and the global studies focus at Bessie Rhodes,
  • Expanding TWI at Bessie Rhodes provides an opportunity to create a school with wall-to-wall dual language (TWI) programming where instruction throughout the school is provided in English and Spanish,
  • Bessie Rhodes has an attendance preference area in the Fifth Ward which is populated by predominantly Black and Latino families, creating an opportunity for native English speaking Black families to have increased access to TWI,
  • Adding TWI strands at Bessie Rhodes addresses a growing population of native Spanish speakers in north Evanston where District 65 currently offers one TWI strand (Willard),
  • The addition of TWI to a magnet school allows for both strands to be added in the same year without eliminating a neighborhood school which would be the outcome if a non-magnet school is converted into a wall-to-wall TWI school,
  • With an average class size of 19, Bessie Rhodes has opportunity to more fully maximize enrollment.   

Dr. Beardsley said administrators  were also recommending that four  additional steps be taken: that siblings of students currently enrolled at Bessie Rhodes be given a preference to attend the school, so families could stay at one school; that the District allocate $7,500 each year to support community engagement events and to assist families with the cost of transportation to the events; that the District strengthen outreach to the Black community about the TWI program; and that $5,000 a year be  allocated to deepen the curricular connection between the TWI program and the global studies model.

The proposal has also been revised and no longer calls for the elimination of Mandarin language instruction at Bessie Rhodes, said Dr. Beardsley. 

Additional Information

Dr. Beardsley also presented additional information requested by Board members at a prior meeting and by Bessie Rhodes parents.

Special Needs Students. Research shows that students with special needs can succeed in an all TWI school, said Dr. Beardsley.

Aligning Global Studies and TWI. Dr. Beardsley said there are some key elements to a global studies model: 1) “Students investigate the world beyond their immediate environment,” 2) “Students recognize their own and other’s perspectives,” 3) “Students communicate their ideas effectively with diverse audiences,” and, 4) “Students translate their ideas into appropriate actions to improve conditions.”

She said these elements can be strengthened to create a stronger global studies model. She added that the TWI program would help address two other criteria for a global studies school, which call for students to be proficient in two or more languages and to understand the cultures of others.    

 Impact on Current Educators and Staff: District 65 administrators say, “One of the most challenging consequences of expanding TWI is the impact on current educators and staff at Bessie Rhodes School of Global Studies.”

“In the event that the recommendation is accepted, District 65 will partner with the school to support school climate and morale,” said Dr. Beardsley. 

The District acknowledges, though, that if Bessie Rhodes is converted into an all TWI school, “the vast majority of the educators and staff at Bessie Rhodes will need to be English/Spanish bilingual and have an EL endorsement. …  The shift means that the vast majority of current Bessie Rhodes educators will be transferred to different schools in District 65.”

The stated exceptions are teachers of departmentalized classes in grades 5-8, where the language allocation is 50% English and 50% Spanish.

Ms. Beardsley said the transition will be gradual, and she summarized some ways in which administrators plan to manage the process.

Potential Impact on Attendance Area Schools.  The District’s Research, Accountability and Data team analyzed what would happen if  a lot of families in the non-TWI grades opted to leave Bessie Rhodes.

“We can, using our traditional measures, manage any level of exit from Bessie Rhodes,” said Dr. Beardsley, indicating that Walker Elementary School and Chute Middle School would feel the largest impact. “We could manage an increase in class sizes [at the other schools] within our class size guidelines.”

The District’s class size guidelines are: 23 students for kindergarten, 25 students for first and second grades, 26 students for third grade, and 27 students for fourth and fifth grades. Under historical practice, the District allows enrollment to exceed the guidelines by two students.

Dr. Beardsley said her first preference would be to work with parents and convince them that “we can maintain a strong global studies model and a strong school for students who are not going to be in the TWI program.”  

Alternate Sites.Dr. Beardsley said administrators  analyzed every K-5 and magnet school in the process of identifying the best possible school to add TWI strands. One of the goals was to avoid creating either a single strand of TWI at a school or a single non-TWI strand at a school. Dr. Beardsley gave the reasons for not selecting any of the schools at which TWI is currently located.

She said if one TWI strand were added to Oakton, Washington or Dawes, the school would have only one non-TWI strand, which would create isolation for the non-TWI group. If two TWI strands were added to any of the schools, there would no longer be a neighborhood school option for families who did not opt to participate in TWI at Washington or Dawes, or to participate in TWI or the African Centered Curriculum at Oakton. This would likely require redrawing attendance areas.

Dr. Beardsley said Willard and Dewey each have some of the larger average class sizes in the District. Adding a TWI strand at either of these schools had a high probability of raising class sizes of the non-TWI classes above the District 65 class size guidelines, leading to enrollment challenges at these sites.  

This left Bessie Rhodes as the best option, said Dr. Beardsley.

“It needs to be expanded somewhere,” concluded Dr. Beardsley. “And we need to meet the needs of our native Spanish-speaking students, and we need to start doing it in a way that research says is best for our students. So no matter where we go, as much as I feel for the Bessie Rhodes community and any other community, this is a group of students whose needs we are not fully serving, and it is time for us to start serving their  needs in the type of environment that research supports.”

Board Comments

Board members were at the meeting all voiced support for converting Bessie Rhodes into an all TWI school.

Rebeca Mendoza said, “I appreciate everyone’s sentiment around the Fifth Ward, but I can’t go without feeing frustration this community voted ‘no’ for a Fifth Ward school five years ago. … I would say we are still very much committed to one day bringing a school back to the Fifth Ward. … But I don’t think it’s an appropriate time to be talking about it, because we had a decision five years ago and Evanston voted ‘no.’”

Addressing Bessie Rhodes parents, Ms. Mendoza said, “I also remind that this is a decision for our District. It’s so difficult. I hear every single comment that has been made, and I hope that the additional information that Stacey has provided gives you a little glimpse in how difficult this decision is. But it’s a decision we’re making for the District, for all of our students.”

She added, “When we think of keeping a global studies school, we can’t do it without your help. So, we keep it global if you stay – if you stay and you help us make this a global school …. Parent involvement is needed.”

Sergio Hernandez said, “I empathize, and I hear you, and I listen to you with regards to some of the loss that could potentially happen if we decide to be going with Bessie Rhodes. This is a very difficult decision. This is the best model.”

Lindsay Cohen said to the Bessie Rhodes parents, “I appreciate your concerns, including bringing back the Fifth Ward school. I would also like to echo Rebeca and Sergio’s statements around this is a District-wide decision and in the spirit of inclusiveness of all members of the community.

Anya Tanyavutti said, “This is an incredibly difficult conversation. I think the positive is the amount of thoughtfulness and responsiveness that has gone into this proposal. … I’m really excited about how visionary this proposal is.

“I feel like the conversation about the Fifth Ward needing a school is important and we need to ensure that as a Board and as District we’re doing more than lip-service to the importance of that conversation.”

Ms. Tanyavutti also said the District should consider a “staffing model” to “support thinking about how Black children learn or how it might be helpful to Black children to be educated in neighborhoods that are proximate to where they live and what learning loss and social and emotional learning experiences are impacted by having to be bused to a school outside your neighborhood.”

Mr. Hernandez said, “I do support exploring as a Board a Fifth Ward option.” He also said the District has plenty of talent within the District to select someone who could be the director of Black student achievement.

Board President Suni Kartha said the survey of Bessie Rhodes’ parents is incomplete, and it is unclear who filled out the 127 survey responses, and whose views are not included. “We need to be honest about what the limitations of this survey are,” she said.

At the last Board meeting, Ms. Cohen asked the District to determine how many families would leave the school if Bessie Rhodes were converted to a TWI school. The District did not present any data on this issue.

“I hope we can shift the conversation to what’s really exciting about this proposal,” said Ms. Kartha. “There’s really a lot that’s really exciting for our incoming students and for existing families.”

Dr. Goren said administrators are talking about how to accelerate the achievement of Black students, and what is the best way to position a person to be a point person.  He added administrators are looking at what other schools in the nation are doing along these lines.

The Board is scheduled to vote on the TWI proposal on Dec. 4.

For more information on the TWI program, the need to add two strands of TWI, the criteria used in making the selection, and prior Board discussions on the issue, see links to articles below.